Go West Young Man (and Woman)

Once upon a time, a US education was the first choice for any Indonesian looking to get on, but, since 911, competition from other nations has increased dramatically

By Mary Silaban
Monday, November 19, 2012

Prior to the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998, the United States was undoubtedly the first choice for Indonesian students seeking further education abroad. Indeed the so-called Berkeley Mafia, a group of high-profile University of Calfiornia graduates, once dominated economic planning and development during the New Order era. But the weakening of the rupiah in the aftermath of the financial crisis forced many students to return home without having graduated and other to defer studies abroad.

Then the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks further exacerbated the situation as the US government tightened its security measures, making it more difficult for students everywhere including Indonesians - to secure the necessary clearances to obtain student visas to the US.

In the report "Trends in International Student Mobility", World Education Services states that among the world's leading destinations for international students, the US saw the lowest growth - only 13 percent between 2002 and 2009; it was outperformed by Canada (67 percent), the UK (62 percent) and Australia (43 percent).

As the enrollment process for studying in the US got more difficult, Indonesian students turned to other countries such as Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Figures from the Indonesia International Education Foundation, an affiliate of the non-profit Institute of International Education (IIE), based in the United States, show that the number of Indonesian students studying in the US has fallen from 15,000 before 9/11to 7,000 today.

In light of this, both the US and Indonesia are taking steps to reignite the old educational flame between the two countries.

"I believe a US education is still quite comparable to that of other countries, says Nenny Soemawinata, Managing Director of the Putra Sampoerna Foundation (PSF).

"The good thing about a US education is that it is adaptive to this changing world. In the past, people focused only on MBA programs and business schools. But now people focus on entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship. And there are schools in the US that offer good programs on these subjects."

PSF runs the Sampoerna Academy, a high school boarding school located in Bogor whose residents are mostly underprivileged students. Of the academy's first batch of 200 graduates, 25 are now studying in the US at universities in Hawaii, Missouri, Kentucky and Texas. The rest are all enrolled in Indonesian universities.

For the Sampoerna Foundation it is the first step in developing a community of scholars who will stay connected to the academy. The 25 students must eventually pay back all their expenses. "This money will be used to help other students in the future," says Nenny.

ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are all companies that sponsor the Sampoerna Academy.

Indonesia's strong economic performance is one of the attractions for foreign public universities eager to aggressively woo Indonesian parents and students. Because the fees charged to international students are far higher than local students in the US generally have to pay, this means a lot to American universities during a time of severe budget cuts.

And the growing appetite of Indonesians to pursue a world-class education has attracted American universities to come to Indonesia in search of students.

"There are some American universities that partner with Indonesian universities," says Brook Ross of Indonesian Education, an organization that helps create partnerships between American and Indonesian universities.

At the time of writing, Ross was in Yogyakarta facilitating cooperation between the University of Hawaii at Manoa and universities including gadja Madain Yogyakarta. In addition to academics, the American partner will also assist its Indonesian counterparts in a Disaster Risk Reduction program.

Previously, Indonesia Education has had helped the partnership of Webster University and Lewis Clark State College with some cities in Indonesia.

Alumni of American universities are also keen to encourage Indonesian students to study in the US.

"We plan to do a promotion to encourage Indonesian students to study at Columbia University. So far, our activities are mostly for our members, but we will do increased socialization," says Dennis Widjaja, chairman of Columbia Alumni in Indonesia.

Despite the high quality of a US Education, Nenny admits that PSF is also looking at other countries, such as Australia and China, that offer cheaper tuition fees.

"With the payback system that we adopt, we do not want to burden the students," she says. "So we need to find other locations where fees are more affordable."

Each student studying in the US needs an average of $80,000 for four years of study, and the Sampoerna Academy is always on the lookout for universities and colleges that offer good value for their courses.

Nenny and many others believe that an education partnership between the US and Indonesia is vital. The US government has expanded its support for the activities of the global Fulbright Program in Indonesia, with the State Department allocating $15 million for five years for the Fulbright Indonesia Research, Science and Technology Program.

Having Indonesian students studying in the United States is also a way to improve the relationship between the two countries generally, and to improve perceptions of each other on a more personal level.

"I have an individual donor who is so keen to sponsor an Indonesian Muslim student to go to Harvard," says Nenny. "That donor says that having an Indonesian Muslim studying there will show the Americans that Indonesian Muslims are not what they generally perceive them to be."

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