JP Staff (The Jakarta Post)

Jakarta   ●   Tue, February 14, 2023 2023-02-14 08:53 1 3275b959b181a76145a04d6198c4a65b 1 Lifestyle expats,international-students,foreign-students,Education Free

Though the pandemic put a halt to most student exchange programs, thousands of international students still came to study in Indonesia, bringing new perspectives and understanding of the local culture, while gaining their own enlightening view of the country to share with others.

While it’s more often true than not that many Indonesian students seek opportunities to study abroad, the reverse is also true: a few international students have sought to continue their studies here.

Ivy Phan, now 29, is a Malaysian national who graduated from the dentistry program at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) after studying at the renowned Yogyakarta institution for seven years. She returned temporarily in 2020 after the first pandemic lockdowns were imposed.

“It’s everything. My friends from Switzerland, [the United States], they all say they miss Indonesia, especially Yogyakarta,” she remarked at the end of her journey. “It makes you sad when [you’re about] to leave.”

While Indonesia’s universities have risen in the world rankings and the country has gained global prominence, it doesn’t host as many international students as its Southeast Asian neighbors.

“Being a vet has always been my dream,” said Sonea Edwards, 21, who also comes from Malaysia and is pursuing a veterinary degree at IPB University in Bogor, West Java.

“Indonesia was not only affordable for me, but [IPB University] is also known for its agriculture, farming and animal welfare programs,” she added.

Ready to embark: Sonea Edwards came to Indonesia with an open mind from Malaysia, her sights set on IPB University’s veterinary medicine program. (Courtesy of Sonea Edwards)Ready to embark: Sonea Edwards came to Indonesia with an open mind from Malaysia, her sights set on IPB University’s veterinary medicine program. (Courtesy of Sonea Edwards) (Archive/Courtesy of Sonea Edwards)

Around 10,000 international students arrived in Indonesia in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, and a further 6,000 students enrolled at Indonesian universities last year, according to QS World University Rankings.

“I never expected that I would be studying in Indonesia, even though I had plans to study abroad one day,” said Thoon “Sofia” Nadi Lynn, a 20-year-old communication science student from Myanmar. “My ultimate reason to study in Indonesia was that I got a scholarship from Gadjah Mada University.”

Making connections

Many of the international students in Indonesia hail from other countries in Southeast Asia. Due to the proximity as well as some similarities between their cultures, many of these students experience culture shock to a lesser degree. But they still face many challenges in adapting to their new environment.

“In my country we use one-way learning, in which the teacher [only] talks or explains the materials. The class discussions are not as prominent,” Thoon said.

“In Indonesia, a two-way interactive learning [method] is applied, and classes are designed to be student-oriented.

“I was the one international student in the class, so I felt pressured at some point.”

Thoon received her scholarship in 2020 after the government imposed lockdown measures, and arrived in Indonesia just last year.

She uploads vlogs about her experience on her YouTube channel, THOON, from the start of her journey after the pandemic had subsided. However, much of the challenges she has encountered relate to maintaining a social life.

“All my classmates are nice and kind to me. However, normally, they have their own respective circles in class, where a group of friends always go out together, study, or do group assignments,” she said. “They are nice, but I feel like they treat me like a ‘foreign’ or ‘exchange student’, not like a friend.”

Even so, Thoon admires the country and is keen to live in Jakarta to experience the “hustle and bustle of city life” before heading off to pursue a graduate program in another country.

“Indonesia is a livable and diverse country with lots of beautiful places and islands,” she said. “The people are kind, the food is good and it has an evolving education system.”

Cultural appreciation

Malaysian compatriots Edwards and Phan have both developed an appreciation for Indonesia’s cultures and peoples.

“I was surprised by how friendly everyone was,” said Edwards. “Communicating with locals isn’t too hard, as Bahasa Malaysia is more or less the same as Bahasa Indonesia.”

Two kampungs: Ivy Phan, who graduated with a dentistry degree from Gadjah Mada University (UGM), longs to return to Indonesia after obtaining her license back home in Malaysia, saying that her seven years here made her a “better person”. (Courtesy of Ivy Phan)Two kampungs: Ivy Phan, who graduated with a dentistry degree from Gadjah Mada University (UGM), longs to return to Indonesia after obtaining her license back home in Malaysia, saying that her seven years here made her a “better person”. (Courtesy of Ivy Phan) (Archive/Courtesy of Ivy Phan)

In the videos she uploads to her TikTok account, soneaedwards, the veterinary student records her adventures as an international student in the country, including her daily routines, study habits, outings with friends and field studies. In one video, she visits the animals on the UGM farm, petting various equines along the way.

As for her studies, while she believed that many universities at home tended to focus more on theory, “Indonesia is more hands-on when it comes to the veterinary program, which makes it fun”.

Meanwhile, Phan’s Indonesian experience inspired her to start the Ivy Phan YouTube channel.

With over 77,400 subscribers at the time of writing, Phan’s videos explore her experiences as a Malaysian in Indonesia, her most popular videos clocking more than half a million views.

She speaks in great detail about the cultural differences between the two countries, highlighting moments of minor shock, such as the informal use of black-and-white photography that are usual reserved for the dead in Malaysia, or the taste of cabe rawit (bird’s eye chili) in ayam geprek, or crushed battered fried chicken with chili sauce, a staple in Indonesia but which is not commonly found in her home country.

While many of these differences are fun and light-hearted, Phan says Indonesian culture and people have left a lasting impact on her.

“It changed me so much, it made me a better person,” she said about her seven years in the country.

“When I first arrived, people told me I was too brash, I spoke directly, and you know how the Javanese in Yogyakarta are. Now, I’m a more polite and respectful person,” Phan said, alluding to how direct speech is often perceived as uncultured or rude in Javanese culture.

Taking off and coming home

While these international students came to Indonesia for their education, they have left with newfound insights of the world around them and some new plans for their future.

“I don’t think I would work in Indonesia. I’m a person who loves to explore,” Edwards said. “As much as I love nature and the cool hiking spots in Indonesia, I would want to explore a different country during my working life.”

While Thoon has also emerged with a thirst for exploring other countries, she is playing with the idea of working at the nation’s leading daily, Kompas, or private broadcaster Narasi TV before she does.

Phan is now back home working toward her dentistry license, and despite the higher pay dentists make in Malaysia, she plans to eventually pulang kampung (come home) to Indonesia, if only for a short time.

“I don’t know if it’s the people. If you want to talk about the food, yes, there’s great food everywhere. It’s kind of weird,” she said, pondering the experience she had on her educational path.

“If I get to choose, I will always choose to study in Indonesia again,” she said.

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