Access to Quality Education as the Great Equalizer: Defying Adversity, Empower, #PayItForward


Editorial note: This month, Indonesia Mengglobal celebrates its 11th anniversary. Throughout August, the editorial team will feature stories from young Indonesians who embody this year’s anniversary theme, Unleash Youth Potential Energize the Essential. This week, we have the honor of having Irawati Puteri, an incoming graduate student at Stanford Law School, contributed her story about how she does not let her humble beginning stop her from making her dreams a reality. Coming from a family with economic hardships, Irawati has come a long way to prove that it is within everyone’s power to turn their lives around through the transformative power of education. She is also sharing her advice on what young and aspiring Indonesians can do to make sure they are on the right track to achieve more and do more with what they already have.


A Rocky Start with Many “Firsts”

I had the chance to live all of the stigma attached to a first daughter born to a humble family. Life forced me to be tough from the time I was a teenager and dictated me to forge my path to accomplish my dream. So many worst firsts were lining up for me: first, hearing my parents’ cries when they had to sell some of the donated rice we received because we didn’t have any cash, first, sitting on the front of our old bicycle without a helmet because we couldn’t afford one as my father sought a loan to survive, first, witnessing my brother drop out of school due to our financial difficulties. But some great firsts did too, first, to graduate from a university, first, to purchase a proper house for my family, first, to get accepted to world-class universities like Stanford. As much as I love the great “first”, I hope I am not the first to demonstrate that this beautiful fairy tale can happen to anyone. I hope by sharing my stories, you can choose to continue believing in such great firsts.

Irawati Puteri. Source: Personal Documentation.

Irawati Puteri (Ira), a former chicken nugget sales promotion girl (SPG), was accepted into two faculties for Master’s programs at Stanford University (Stanford Graduate School of Education – International Comparative Education and International Education Policy Analysis and Stanford Law School – Law, Science, and Technology).

Months ago, I made headlines. I was featured on several national news platforms. Today, I can google my given name and Google will give lists of search recommendations. My Instagram followers exploded in a matter of days. I was invited to a lot of interviews with TV stations that I never watched. The teenage me, often feeling unseen and discriminated, has always dreamt that someday people can Google my name, find a specific search, and mutter in awe. Isn’t it everything I’ve ever desired? No, there is so much more. These represent significant opportunities for me to speak and be heard. I know that even though more than half a million people liked this online media platform’s post about my achievement, a number of them could not resist doubting its authenticity due to its anomalous nature. 

I have begun to become the backbone of my family since I was 15. I spent my high school days juggling between work. One day, you can find me at my chicken nugget stall, the other day I was at the school art performance event–interviewing guest stars as the school’s journalist, but most days, after school I will be at my students’ house, teaching various academic subjects. I kept trying to find out how to combine my grit and academic capabilities to seek money, and one of the answers was competing in an academic competition because they usually provide cash prizes. I chose the debating competition, thinking it will not require further skills whereby I have to pursue an extra class (which means additional expense!). I made one of my brightest decisions. I began to participate in an extensive number of debate competitions, ranging from school-level to regional and national levels—quite a substantial amount, to say the least, for cash prizes.

Universitas Indonesia — The Stepping Stone to Many More Wonderful Things

I always give the same answer to the question: “How did you end up studying at the Faculty of Law of Universitas Indonesia?” in every interview, “It was a beautiful, miraculous series of coincidences.” None of my parents went to university, they did not even go to high school. Let alone having a background in law. I recalled that I had a single prayer that I repeatedly sent to God during high school, “If everyone only has one miracle in their life, I would be very happy exchanging mine with getting into Universitas Indonesia.” Pursuing higher education at a public university in Jakarta was my only option, simply because it was the most affordable and accessible. 

The Faculty of Law, Universitas Indonesia, annually hosts a debate competition. That was my last debate competition in senior high school. I had one objective, I had to win because I needed the money to pay for the SIMAK UI (Universitas Indonesia’s entrance test)! Every penny I earned from my jobs had been reserved to cover rent and essential household expenses.

Irawati took photos with her fellow Faculty of Law students at the University of Indonesia after winning a prize in a legal drafting competition. Source: Instagram @irawatiputeri

I took a one-day leave from my SPG  chicken nugget job. We went from Jakarta to Depok by commuter line. We competed and made it to the quarterfinals before finally being eliminated. Yet, just when we were about to return, to my surprise, I was announced as the Best Speaker. They granted me a considerable cash prize. I used that prize to pay for the University of Indonesia’s SIMAK UI entrance examinations and ended up listing law school as my first choice. “The money is coming from them anyway?” Now, while recalling this with my current level of maturity, I am more convinced that it was a miraculous destiny, yet I worked hard to manifest it and ensure it was written for me. 

The Courage to Dream Big

Dreams can develop over time. I began to observe my surroundings when I realized I could attend one of the finest public universities in Indonesia. It is only natural for me to aspire to dream higher. I utilized my college years to create a competitive resume. I participated in numerous debate competitions, contract drafting, legislative drafting, and constitutional drafting, all of which helped me develop my writing and public speaking skills. In the sixth semester, I applied for a full-time position at one of Jakarta’s top law firms. I got admitted. I began my career approximately 1.5 years before graduating from college. This has greatly helped me advance my career faster, I obtained my first managerial position within two years after graduating. Parallel with my career, my network in teaching has also massively expanded after I was entrusted to coach several teams from Indonesia’s top international schools for an international debating competition, the World Scholars’ Cup. Our economic situation has been gradually improving.

What’s next? Seeing some of my seniors choosing to pursue their Master’s degrees abroad, I started asking myself, “Why shouldn’t I dare to do the same? Now that our positions are equal, I must not feel inferior anymore. I should be able to dream as high!” Yes, the ambitious environment is a privilege too.

Irawati would always be grateful for the opportunities that studying at the University of Indonesia afforded her. UI opened the doors to many more possibilities. Source: Instagram @irawatiputeri

I began researching the chance to attend the finest universities abroad for my Master’s. But that was not my primary objective following graduation. Since obtaining my first job, I have fought for my family to live a “normal life” comparable to that of other middle-class families in Jakarta: to have a house and a car and to be able to eat and shop at the mall. My parents have never owned a house in their entire lives. They have never experienced a clean ceiling without rats above or rainwater leaking in. We have moved to rented places more than 23 times. Having a proper house has been their long-lived dream.

In August of 2021, I finally made my first long-term commitment by taking out a mortgage. I rethought my desire to study abroad, as the preparation for our first house is surely not inexpensive. This is perhaps the most relatable aspect for the sandwich generation, which must strike a balance between pursuing their ambitions and making their parents’ dreams a reality.

But I believe God’s blessings always come to those who work hard for their families.

I was committed to departing for my Master’s on a scholarship. I began pursuing the LPDP scholarship because, as a sandwich generation, I always had this mindset of securing the financing first. Preparing for the LPDP scholarship was an arduous process. I poured my heart into crafting the perfect essay for admission to graduate school, expressing my passion for knowledge and desire to make a difference. 

Believe me, writing the essay is the most difficult part. There are just too many contemplative moments to recount. But, if I may offer some advice, make sure to (i) solicit feedback from your dearest friends with diverse backgrounds to test your rationale and (ii) reject the notion that you must (a) include a sob story and (b) list all of your accomplishments within. Consider your essay a platform for you to tell the admissions committee something unique that they could not learn from your other application materials (your CV and recommendation letters).

I applied to several numbers of top Ivy Leagues universities for graduate school in education and law. On the last week of February, I received my announcement from Stanford Graduate School of Education – International Education Policy Analysis. 30 days later, I was accepted into the Stanford Law School – Law, Science, and Technology program, becoming the only Indonesian representative this year among 18-21 students in the class. Not even in my wildest dream would I imagine this could ever happen.

I believe in the transformative force of education and the #payitforward movement’s ripple effect. If you now feel sufficiently privileged, #payitforward for education, as it has the potential to transform other Iras like me a decade ago. 

Besides Stanford, I was also accepted at several prestigious Ivy League schools and the like, such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Michigan, and NYU, before finally choosing Stanford, which is currently ranked first in the world for the program I chose, Master of Laws (US News 2023). Despite the prestigious name of the university accepting me, I am well aware of my non-economic privilege. My privilege emerges from the invaluable gifts bestowed upon me—gifts of humble origins. I was born to low-educated parents who taught me to dream high, even under the roof of an underprivileged household. From such beginnings, I learned the essence of toil, discovering that nothing worth having ever comes easy. I uncovered the transformative might of hard work, for it is the solitary force I wholeheartedly believe in. 

Hence, I arranged my scholarship project as a manifestation of my vow. My acceptance into Stanford marked a turning point in my life and reinforced my belief in the power of dreams and determination. My parents might have limited education and could only work as laborers, but with our faith in education, I would say we catch up pretty well! 

Paying It Forward– The Irawati Puteri Scholarship

My path was laden with obstacles. As I advanced in my academic journey, I realized I wanted to do more than merely succeed for myself and my family; I yearned to uplift others like the Ira 10-15 years ago. This led to the inception of the Irawati Puteri Scholarship Program. Establishing The Irawati Puteri Scholarship is an account of the transformative journey that took me from the hardships of my childhood to the hallowed halls of the University of Indonesia and Stanford. Through Beasiswa Irawati Puteri, I wish to empower other underprivileged but high-spirited young minds. In sharing this story, I hope to inspire and encourage young minds to never give up on their dreams.

I hope to open doors for the underprivileged, both financially and emotionally, so that they may find the motivation to further their studies. For this reason, my scholarship is also available to people taking a gap year and the primary breadwinner in their families who must put their education on hold.

The Irawati Puteri Scholarship is open to high school students or equivalent, those on a gap year, D3/D4/S1/S2 students both inside and outside the country (without specific campus/faculty restrictions), and the general public, including housewives who have not had the opportunity to continue their education. The scholarship includes an educational support fund of IDR 5,000,000 in cash per person, with a total scholarship amounting to tens of millions of rupiahs. I have channeled all collaborations with brands and speaking engagements for this purpose. 

It also offers 1-on-1 mentoring for the awardees on tips and tricks for success in both academics and careers. I have enlisted the help of other seniors who are studying at top foreign universities to be involved in providing 1-on-1 mentoring.

In awarding this scholarship, I collaborate with SejutaCita as the registration partner, which means that registration for the Irawati Puteri Scholarship can only be done through the SejutaCita app. 

Word of Advice to Fellow Aspiring Young Indonesians

Irawati believes no dream is too impossible to accomplish as long as we are committed to staying on the right track to fight for it. Source: Instagram @irawatiputeri

As someone who was on the receiving end of educational opportunities and now a recipient of Indonesia’s government-bestowed scholarship to pursue my graduate education at Stanford, I want to pay it forward by empowering the communities. Education has been like a magic wand in my life. It has given me the power to empower myself and others. I hope this time; too, I can be given another chance to hold the magic wand, pay it forward, and empower.

Witnessing the impact of this program on young minds has been a source of immense joy and fulfillment. Through financial assistance, mentorship, and educational resources, we strive to create a nurturing environment where dreams can thrive.

To all the young minds out there, I want to tell you that your dreams are valid, no matter where you come from or what challenges you face. Your unwavering determination will act as your torchlight to guide you through the darkest times. Never let anyone tell you that your dreams are out of reach. 

It is okay to stumble along the way, but never let insecurities deter you from your path. Your dreams may seem distant now and even after you achieve them, but always know in your heart that you deserve them.

Let us stand as living proof that adversity can be conquered through determination and perseverance. Let’s lift each other to new heights and work together to unlock the door to a brighter, more inclusive future by starting to believe in the transformative power of education. 

Resilience and perseverance are keys to overcoming challenges.

Irawati in Stanford hoodie/merchandise. Source: Personal Documentation


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