The Indonesian Semester Abroad Experience – Safia Aminah Shaikh
Over the last month of summer, Term One, and the Christmas break, SOAS, partnering with ‘The Australian Consortium for In Country Studies’ (ACICIS), gave single degree Development Studies students such as myself the opportunity to study a semester abroad in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The experience has been incredibly formative, and at times, extremely challenging. However, despite facing bumps in the road, I ultimately found the time spent in Indonesia participating in the ‘Development Studies Immersion Program’ (DSIP) overwhelmingly positive, enriching and, invaluable in both my personal and professional growth. I was and remain passionate about ‘In-Country’ opportunities to study development. I believe every development studies student should, before committing to the field, experience life and grassroots participation in the Global South
Daily life in Yogyakarta is far slower than London, work is more flexible and often remote. Over the past six months I have been able to travel, see, eat and experience more than I could have ever imagined. The Indonesian people in most cases are incredibly hospitable and kind and the culture is rich and diverse. The natural beauty, from beaches to mountains is incredible and I found myself constantly humbled by my surroundings.
The Development Studies Immersion Program (DSIP), which accounted for 60 credits of Year three and, included intensive language training (facilitated by The ‘Indonesian Language and Culture Learning’ Cultural Science Faculty (INCULS)) alongside Indonesian focused development lectures at Universitas Gadjah Madah (the highest ranking university in Indonesia). Additionally, the program provided an internship placement opportunity upon the completion of classes, which I chose to spend at a local grassroots organisation, Project Child Indonesia. I focussed my efforts on the advocacy for, and wellbeing of, children living in poverty in the coastal and riverside areas of Yogyakarta.
Educationally, the semester abroad has been more of a holistic learning experience than simply an academic one. INCULS language lessons are not particularly suited to beginners, and the majority of the cohort chose to enrol and pay for additional separate language tuition in order to meet basic survival needs. The development lectures were interesting, and the Indonesian perspective was incredible to hear first hand. For example, I found the week focusing on feminist issues particularly engaging due to the region’s developing religious and social attitudes towards women, and how this was perceived and studied on an internal level as opposed to from an outside western perspective. Furthermore, examples were all contemporary and rooted in Indonesian current affairs. However, the concepts were not particularly challenging. Additionally the format themselves are not dissimilar from the seminar-style lectures at SOAS.
The NGO placement may have been the highlight of the entire ‘Academic’ side of the program. Project Child were an incredibly motivated, tight knit and passionate team highlighting exactly why grassroots development is important and the key to Development in Indonesia. Project Child work on an array of projects, from sanitation and clean drinking water to education and English language skills. In particular, recent projects have included a program teaching the children how to code and an increased focus on mental health, wellbeing and mindfulness. Project Child focuses on allowing interns agency over their work, and through them, I was facilitated in both topical research, events, and communications and, advocacy. I cannot imagine being allowed such professional freedom and creativity in a western placement, or indeed, in a global NGO based in Jakarta.
During my time abroad I found notable challenges. In particular Indonesia is still incredibly racist and colourist, as a person of colour you WILL be treated differently, and in many cases badly in comparison to the white exchange students. While this is less of a problem in more globalised locations such as Bali and Jakarta, Yogyakarta and surrounding Java struggled with the concept of a person of colour being from the west, and even more so in refraining from constant and daily microaggressions.
Ultimately, however challenging the experience was, the resilience and adaptability demonstrated across this semester’s cohort has been an inspiration. And I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced Indonesian life, travelled the country and studied alongside a group of talented, driven individuals. For all its failings Indonesia is an exciting, dynamic environment to be in and forced me out of my comfort zone. I have learnt more about the culture, community and structure of the country and will walk away from the experience with a much better understanding of development in the Global South, a language skillset that will be invaluable going forward, and professional experience.