Three Learning Lessons from Studying Abroad in Three Different Countries

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Steve Jobs famously mentioned in a Stanford commencement speech that you can only connect the dots backwards. It is indeed interesting to realize how life works when you connect the dots backwards. This writing is a couple learning lessons that I’d like to share after looking at my own dots, backward.

Off Campus-5When you hear about Indonesian students who study abroad in Singapore, the United States (US), or Australia, you might already have a perception of their respective experiences. In my case, it was rather unique. I first transferred to an international high school in Singapore, went to a liberal-arts college in the US, and did an exchange semester at a public research university in Melbourne, Australia. As I reflect on my life after graduation, I would like to share to you a little part of my journey. I hope that I can help to inspire you after reading this piece.

  1. Singapore taught me how to work hard, and to appreciate art.

Living and studying in Singapore was an inflection point in my life. Generally speaking, Singapore has a competitive education environment. Consequently, as a product of this culture I learned to be disciplined about my time management and be responsible for my learning. At the same time, I let go of my perfectionist tendencies, and I also learned to understand that each of us is gifted with our own unique skill sets and capabilities.

I went to an international school called St. Joseph’s Institution International (SJII). In this school, I completed a year in a foundation program for the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum and 2 years for the IB Diploma program itself. To me, the IB program is special because you get to choose your own subjects from each respective field (such as Natural Science, Humanities, Languages, and so on). A special moment for me was when I had the opportunity to write a mini-thesis paper in my chosen subject and topic. I studied about the effects that tourism had on the social fabric of Ubud and Kuta in Bali. It was intellectually stimulating and challenging at the same time because for the first time ever I got to research and write the answer to my question in a methodological way.

Moreover, I cherish the introduction to the habit of reading, art appreciation, and the richness of global cultures in my Indonesian Literature class. Our teacher, Ibu Susi, instilled so much humanistic values in her teachings. She taught us how to appreciate writings, traditional dances, and paintings through meaningful day-to-day life philosophies. For instance, she led the class in examining an excerpt from Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s ‘Child of All Nations’ and drew an analogy from human psychology and world affairs. Until today, Pramoedya’s work still heavily influences my philosophy about what it means to be an Indonesian. I would definitely recommend every Indonesian to read Pramoedya’s work to really understand the country’s colonial past, identity, and its dialectics. In the end, I can only say that I am truly grateful and proud for the life lessons and the introduction to the world of arts. 

  1. The US taught me about being confident of who you are and the ‘American Dream.

There are different kinds of American college experiences that you can choose from: a community college, a liberal-arts college, a public university, or a private university. I initially chose Occidental College or Oxy in Los Angeles, California because of its renowned Diplomacy and World Affairs program (or International Relations). Furthermore, Oxy offers a program at the United Nations (UN), where a group of students get to study and work with UN-related institutions in New York City.

Permias LA
Permias LA

My college experience was a big change for me. Coming in for the first time, I had a difficult time adjusting to the American culture. I experienced what people refer to as ‘culture shock’. I still remember vividly how I felt like the stupidest person in my International Relations (IR) class because I was so nervous in answering the professors’ questions. I realized that my peers were confident in answering the professors’ questions even though they did not necessarily provide correct answers. In an American education system, answering and asking questions simply mean that you show curiosity and engagement in classes. Moreover, in a typical liberal-arts system, you can go to the professors’ office hours to discuss anything from class to career related. For instance, I did use this opportunity to ask for study tips and discuss a thesis for my research paper.

Through a series of humbling experiences, I learned to understand myself better and immersed fully in every growth opportunity possible. At Oxy, students are encouraged to be experimental in their education. Students come in with an undeclared major and have until the end of their second year to determine a college major. In my own experience, I realized that IR was not for me. After taking a few IR classes, I switched to become an Economics major. Although this might not be usual in other higher education system, I was confident with my decision and ended up learning a lot in Economics. In the end, the knowledge from my IR and other Political Science classes has complemented my domain in Economics because of the understanding of  the nature and dynamic of power that shapes our world.

Outside of academia, students can possibly join any student-run clubs and organizations on campus. An unforgettable experience was made possible through a mutual connection from a professor who advises Oxypreneurship, a student-run entrepreneurial club that I was involved in. A group of friends and I had the chance to volunteer for Intel Global Challenge 2014 in San Francisco, California. It was an incredible experience meeting global entrepreneurs from more than 10 different countries. In this 4-day event, I had the chance to attend private lectures from notable tech executives, witness real businesses pitch their ideas, and network with the local communities.

Moreover, the notion of American Dream, which translates to the ethos of ‘you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be-if-you-work-hard.’ has changed my perception of work and career. I used to think that after finishing college, it would be ideal to work for a big bank or corporation and retire happily. However, I was inspired by my college peers and the Indonesian diaspora in the US who choose to define their own paths. I came to a realization that it is not necessarily about the thing that you do, but more about how you feel towards your work. As cliché it may sound, passion still trumps everything and you are definitely responsible for your own achievements. To this day, I am thankful for the critical thinking and a sense of purpose that Oxy has nurtured in me.

  1. Melbourne showed me a life that is full of creativity, and work-life balance.

During my third year, I decided to spend a semester in Melbourne because of my love for the specialty coffee industry. I was fortunate because Oxy happened to have a direct exchange program with the University of Melbourne (UniMelb or MelU). Based on my experience, I would say that Australia (Melbourne) has an interesting identity, compared to Singapore and the US. Australians are generally more laidback and share the same ideal of self-sustaining communities. Imagine a city where you could get to know a person better by simply saying ‘You wanna grab coffee?’ or imagine a city with pubs at their near full capacity at 5 pm.

Although my study abroad experience in Australia was short, I had a good sense of understanding about their education system and culture. I would say that Australian higher education system is more similar to that of Singapore and the United Kingdom. Students apply to a specific program within a certain department. Furthermore, the classes, on average, come with two big examinations period, a midterm and a final exam.

IMG_0129At UniMelb, I sampled classes in Economics, Politics, and History and I noticed a difference in the way classes are taught (as compared to the American system). For all my four classes, we met two times per week for a lecture, and a discussion session. For bigger classes, the discussion was usually led by the Professor’s Teaching Assistant. In the US, especially in a small liberal arts college like Oxy, students meet two to three times per week and the professors lead both of the lecture and discussion. I believe that this difference in teaching style is a matter of getting used to. However, I found that I am more comfortable with an American style education.

The main takeaway from Melbourne is the power of community and creative buzz that you could absorb from the city. In addition to being easily accessible in terms of transportation and walking, the city also offers a great coffee, food, and music culture. After living in hectic metropolitans such as Jakarta, Singapore, and Los Angeles, I found that Melbourne offers a peaceful environment where you can grow your logical and creative minds at the same time. I felt that Melbourne has given me a much-needed reminder that in your journey, you need to develop a balanced lifestyle and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

The Essence

If I had to summarize all of my learning lessons from these three countries, it would be to stay curious, resourceful, and be confident in your strides. Sometimes you may not know where you are going, but if you understand yourself well and you surround yourselves with inspiring people, a door of opportunity will miraculously appear. It is then up to you to enter that door and figure out a way to unlock another door. Also, do not forget to be reflective and improve upon your learnings because you can never lose from making yourself ‘better.’ Good luck and please let me know if I can be of any help!

Photos provided by the author.

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Richard Darsono is a recent graduate from Occidental College, where he received a B.A. in Economics. During his junior year, he participated in the Global Mobility Exchange Semester at the University of Melbourne. He also served as the VP of Event Organizing at Persatuan Mahasiswa Indonesia-Amerika Serikat (PERMIAS Los Angeles). Richard is currently interning at Kiva Microfunds in San Fransisco in order to develop his passion in the intersection of entrepreneurship, tech, and social impact.


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