Maggie Tiojakin, WEEKENDER | Wed, 04/25/2012 2:38 PM |
Each year, the number of Indonesian students admitted to foreign schools and universities continues to rise. Perhaps it’s for the best.
Only a few years back, it was not common for Indonesian parents to send their children off to foreign lands unless there was what they considered an adequate amount of supervision – meaning family members in whose care the children would be placed – and a generous stream of funding. More than that, being educated abroad was sometimes less of a choice than a privilege and the “done thing” for affluent children.
According to education consultant Behta Arcana, most students generally feel more comfortable studying in their home country where they know the language and culture.
“More students are choosing the less traveled path nowadays by going abroad,” says Behta. “However, most of them have to be coaxed to take that path by either their parents or friends.”
As an education consultant based in Jakarta, who has worked for numerous organizations and helped students make the decision to study abroad and prepare for the experience, Behta has plenty of stories to tell. An Indian-Indonesian herself, she finds that the process of fitting into a new environment can be pretty overwhelming.
“Living abroad and away from home is not for everyone,” she says. “But it should be, because it is part of the solution toward attaining global prosperity.”
Experiencing the World
The scenario is familiar: A little bird flaps its wings, flies off and leaves the nest for the first time. In Disney movies, this short scene is often accompanied by a moving score to signify the transformation of a helpless creature into a self-sufficient individual. This is also why coming-of-age stories are perennially interesting, because watching the child become an adult through life-changing experiences can be inspiring.
But do they have to be that far away from home?
Rosa Anderweil is an Indonesian-American who works at the admissions office at Brandeis University in Boston, Massachusetts. For the past 18 months, Anderweil has been traveling the world soliciting support from colleges and universities to send their students abroad as part of an exchange program. Each program lasts for about a year and students have the opportunity to work in a professional environment of their own choosing.
“The idea is to create a movement among young people to get out and experience the world,” she says. “Our program is designed to immerse them in environments that are culturally and intellectually enriching. Hopefully, in the end, the experience will help them gain some understanding of the way the world works.”
And the world does look bigger when you are viewing it from outside your comfort zone.
Hendrik Soekesno, who is currently enrolled at the Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, did not think he would enjoy living away from his family and friends. But having survived the first year of homesickness, he says he has never felt more excited about life.
“I don’t know what it is,” he says while browsing the shelves at Harvard Bookstore. “Maybe it’s the idea that I am standing on my own two feet without the aid of friends or family from back home, which then sparks a new idea that maybe I could also do something great with my life.”
Hendrik chose to study government policy and how it can affect the history of a nation and the lives of millions of people. Not that he has any aim of becoming a politician.
“That’s not why I applied for a scholarship here,” he says. “I wanted to know how the system works. I wanted to see if there wasn’t something more we could do to help Indonesia become the country it always dreamed it would be.”
It used to be that the opportunities created by studying abroad were only available to those from families that could afford it. Today, however, other schemes are available that involve far less money – although greater commitment. Some of the most prestigious universities in Australia, United Kingdom, the United States, France, China and Singapore offer scholarships and financial aid. Practically anyone from around the world is welcome to apply and take their shot at free education, plus room and board.
Winston Gunawan has just started his first year at New York University. He wants to become an archaeologist. His greatest dream is to visit China. On a clear winter’s day, while exploring the Village, he discusses the pros and cons to living abroad on his own.
“Homesickness is a given,” he says. “You leave home, you will miss home. And no matter how wonderful it is being on your own, you will always need your people [family] around. This is a dream, being here. But I tell you, it wouldn’t hurt to have a familiar face or two from home.”
And the experience has definitely changed his life.
“The best part about being away from home is learning to trust your instincts and your own judgment,” he says. “There’s no good or bad decision; there are just decisions. You learn to live another day.”
“You can’t know about the pitfalls in life without experiencing it yourself, or at least seeing it with your own eyes,” she says. “You can’t know what it’s like to take life by the horns until you do it.”
At the time of writing, the exchange program at Brandeis University had seen more than 500 students move in or out of the country. More discussions are planned and more students have signed up for the experience of a lifetime. Rosa says Indonesia will be next.
“We are going to Southeast Asia pretty soon,” she says. “Maybe even pay a visit to several colleges and universities in Indonesia. We have seen great results from this program and we want the world to know more about its benefits.”
The experience of living in a different country and culture may be an enlightening one, but what happens after that?
Staying in school forever is rarely an option. Even the most enlightened traveler may find it necessary to set down roots, and those who study abroad may find it more fulfilling to use their wealth of experience to build a life back home – or not.
“Once you have finished school, the logical thing to do is to start working,” says Hilda Tambunan, who graduated from Stanford University three years ago and is now working on Wall Street. “Some of us choose to gain this experience back home, while others decide to extend their stay and go the whole nine yards.”
Hilda is currently in the process of obtaining permanent residency. She lives in Brooklyn with a roommate from Tanzania, who is studying to be a doctor. Her roommate is the closest thing to family she has in New York.
“The way I look at it, studying abroad can be the most important experience in a person’s life,” says Hilda. “And that experience can manifest itself in a thousand different ways. It can change the way you see the world. It can change the way you see yourself. These are things you cannot learn when you are protected by your parents and friends.”
“You sink or swim,” he says. “It’s the best way to learn a language and it’s the best way to take charge of your life and make something out of it.”