A cool breeze offers respite from the thickly humid heat of the day on the remote Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Under the welcome shade of mango trees, I sit in a circle with a group of women gently bouncing children on their laps, discussing their concerns and needs for education and health services in their community.
A loudspeaker from a nearby mosque crackles to life, and the ethereal call to prayer begins to drift through the air. As those around me rise to collect their sajadah mats and move inside to complete their prayers, I’m left alone, save for a few curious chickens. As silence falls in the streets, I am given pause to reflect on the journey that has brought me here.
I didn’t wander into this remote corner of Indonesia as an intrepid traveller, but was sent here on a field mission for my employer, the World Bank, surveying community attitudes to some of our most recent projects.
I have to pinch myself, because 18 months ago I was just a student in Adelaide with little to set me apart from my peers. Now I’ve landed my dream job: an overseas posting at a leading development institution.
What I do know is that I’m here as a direct result of the experience, expertise and networks I gained during the time I spent in Indonesia as a recipient of the New Colombo Plan scholarship.
There is a palpable sense of anxiety among my generation as we approach the end of our university degrees. After graduation, unemployment and underemployment are real concerns, and the idea of finding a meaningful job in your field can feel like a pipe dream.
The costs of education are higher than ever, leaving us with looming debts as we enter a difficult job market. For me, pursuing a career in the notoriously competitive field of international development, this overseas experience gained beyond the classroom made all the difference in improving my career prospects.
The New Colombo Plan initiative was launched by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2013 as an effort to increase student mobility to the Asia-Pacific region. Since then the program has supported more than 10,000 young Australians to live, study and undertake work placements in locations as diverse as Hong Kong, Bhutan and Fiji.
My 18-month scholarship journey in Indonesia began in the city of Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural heart, where I undertook intensive Indonesian language training. I then completed two semesters of study at Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung, a city in the mountains of West Java famous for creative industry, fashion and culinary excellence. Finally, I made the move to the bustling megacity of Jakarta, or the Big Durian, as it is affectionately known, to seek my fortune in Indonesia’s development sector.
After rigorous searching I secured a World Bank internship, which led to a paid contract. The combination of language training, study and work placements provided a well-rounded overseas experience, and is a key strength of the NCP program.
During my time in Indonesia, I have had the opportunity to attend a number of international conferences, and volunteer at both an international NGO supporting refugees and a community organisation working with homeless and HIV-positive populations. I helped to establish a West Java chapter of the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association, and experimented with entrepreneurship by founding start-ups with new friends.
I quickly learned to work in multicultural environments, and got my first taste for putting my studies into practice. These experiences became invaluable additions to my CV, and gave me plenty of relevant examples to draw on in job applications and interviews.
Living in Indonesia has vastly expanded both my personal and professional networks. I had the opportunity to meet diplomats, aid workers and foreign correspondents, and built strong personal links to Indonesia through my friendships. I formed close relationships with students and young professionals with similar career interests, and now have friends from all over Australia and the world. These networks have connected me with potential employers and mentors, and will continue to be a source of advice, support and inspiration.
Both inside and outside the classroom, Indonesia has offered valuable learning opportunities at every turn. From inspiring lectures and animated discussions with classmates at a streetside food stall, to getting insider tips from expats over cocktails and canapes, I was always picking up something new.
There was plenty of surf and sun for good measure, and travelling around the archipelago offered insights into the dynamics and diversity of Indonesia.
I quickly developed a deep interest in current affairs in Southeast Asia, and began to avidly consume news and books about the region, as well as publishing my own work in academic journals and media outlets. While my Indonesian may not be good enough to read a novel just yet, I am able to converse with street vendors and government ministers alike. I know enough slang from my student days to break the ice, and Indonesians are always curious to hear about my university days or which Indonesian football team I support.
My time in Indonesia has been transformative, both personally and professionally, and I would encourage all Australian students to take advantage of the New Colombo Plan initiative. Whatever their field, a well-rounded overseas experience in the Asia-Pacific region will help them gain a competitive edge in their careers, and, perhaps most importantly, help our generation of Australians to better understand the dynamic and fascinating region we live in.
Written by Thomas Brown, 2017.