Study doesn’t always remain study. Study can lead to valuable work and research opportunities – and gaining research experience can enhance study grant and scholarship opportunities. At least, that’s what I found; as a result of my undertaking an intensive short-term research project on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, in early 2015, I was able to unlock scholarships in Indonesia and gain further opportunities.
My three-week research project in early 2015 focused on community attitudes towards works of Indonesian literature. The focus was on face-to-face interviews with local writers in various contexts – including members of writers’ groups, students and government workers.
The opportunity to undertake this research project was provided by the Regional Universities In-Country Language Initiative (RUILI), which is a language program I highly recommend to both learners of Indonesian looking to upgrade their language skills in the summer period, and anyone looking to pick up some of the language but can’t commit to an entire degree or major. For those interested in the RULI language program, check out the website to see if your university is a member of the RUILI consortium; if you’re not a student or your university isn’t a member, still get in touch – you might be able to attend as a private student. Trust me, if you get the opportunity to learn Indonesian – especially under this program – you’ll be hooked!
By engaging personally with interviewees, I could see the links between the investigation I was conducting and the background research I had just completed. I also gained an understanding of the opportunities that might emerge later within any future interaction with those respondents and people in their networks. It was simply a matter of personally and professionally engaging – talking, listening, and understanding – with them to cross the boundary between local and foreigner to become, quite possibly, friends.
There were two other students doing their own projects at the same time for the program. One of them, a water engineer based in Brisbane, secured an interview with the manager of a local catchment management company. The whole class – three students and an impressive husband-wife teaching duo – went along to the initial meeting between the two of them, and it was there that I heard the manager offer to reach out to the Brisbane-based company and develop a partnership between the two businesses. How amazing is that? Work opportunities emerging from a research project facilitated by an in-country language program – benefits for everyone.
Although we were based at the local university, the field research prompted us to move beyond our initial study focus. We made the conscious decision to explore the opportunities outside the classroom and learn about other levels of the program which would be more practical for the transition into the work sphere. In doing so, our learning went far beyond the academic sphere.
Here’s an example. I decided to meet a few local authors (including Budi Afandi and Winsa, who are successful Lombok writing individuals). First I had to become part of the furniture to enter their environment and engage with them as equals and try not to make any Westerner blunders – like being too direct or forgetting to respect the more elderly writers. The local writers’ group had a gathering space for both writers and any interested folk hoping to peel back the layers to see what makes things tick – like me, for example. So, I went about getting involved as naturally as possible.
The set-up was entirely Indonesian: a casual, slow setting featuring much small-talk about the most ordinary topics – you know, the standard where are you from? How long are you here? Why did you choose to learn Indonesian? I once knew someone whose cousin worked in Perth… Or my personal favourite, hey, do you have an Indonesian girlfriend yet? Then there were the countless cups of sweet, hot coffee, before we eventually, leisurely, got to the topic at hand – and even then we would beat around the bush a little more before getting to the nitty-gritty details that down-the-line Australians seem to like. That’s just how it goes, and it’s amazing to see the contrast with the forthright nature of some other cultures.
There are a number of advantages of adopting an approach geared towards gaining experience and skills within an Indonesian work environment. Although, it is possible to learn and read about how Indonesians in the area might react to classical and contemporary texts, I found my engagement with actual key players in the authentic work setting was of far greater value. Whilst chatting with one published author, for example, I heard of her attempts to write for an audience who didn’t enjoy reading and the financial burdens of travelling to festivals without outside assistance. In essence, this meant that making emotional connections in Indonesia were just as important, if not more important, than making intellectual connections. However, this was based on my limited experience and may not reflect all work places.
Indeed, my interacting, at a personal level, with a number of writers across multiple days helped cultivate great rapport – greatly enhanced by my speaking their language – and has since resulted in new opportunities, both in terms of work and research. For example, I will be returning to Lombok in 2016 to undertake my Honours thesis in Indonesian literature and I hope to reconnect with the contacts I first made earlier this year to do so. That will form part of an Australian Government-supported New Colombo Plan (NCP) Scholarship Program, which also encourages scholars to take one or more internships in local businesses, NGOs or other organisations. I believe that my numerous internship prospects available to me now via the NCP are partly due to my valuable time in Lombok. Certainly, others have found them invaluable.
A large part of my application and short-listing interview for the scholarship focused on the experience I gained conducting research and creating networks in-country, which I believe had considerable import into my scholarship application. As a result, this study and research experience can be seen as an anchor which has helped give tangible weight and value to my application allowing it to stand out against other applications. Hopefully, my highlighting all of the above will help you drill down and emphasise a particular credential or niche when creating your own scholarship application.
Who knows what other doors might open after that? Either with further work placements in-country or within interested organisations back in Australia.
This means that, ultimately, whether by design or otherwise, I keep coming back to the work opportunities that are open to me at certain times and all because of those initial few steps beyond the study sphere – using academic knowledge to engage with a ‘real-life’ setting.
That is, essentially, the core of it – the personal interaction, the crossing of cultural boundaries via simple conversation and a cup of coffee. Those kinds of simple interactions can lead to all sorts of opportunities later on and essentially forms the core of my advice to anyone finding themselves in a similar scenario.