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Stories from the region

Student experiences in Southeast Asia

Exploring study abroad options? Discover how our students combine travel and study in Southeast Asia.

Destination: Cambodia

Hannah undertook an eight-month exchange program in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, studying Human Geography and International Studies.

Stepping out of Phnom Penh airport in the late afternoon, my lungs are instantly filled with hot, tropical air, not at all unpleasant in contrast to the Australian winter I’d left behind me. I barely have time to register my surroundings before I’m whisked straight into an airport taxi before I have time to breathe a nervous word of my shaky, infant Khmer. As I instinctively make my way to the left side of the car, I quickly realise I’ve had my first cultural difference by forgetting that the passenger’s seat is on the right! The next moment of cultural difference proves less trivial, however, in that the driver does not know the location of my hotel, and my language skills are not up to the task of giving directions, but after a chat with his colleague, the driver smiles and nods at me, having found out where to go. 

We fly through the city streets, weaving in and out of a chaotic mix of tuk-tuks, open-air trucks bursting to the brim with commuters, motorbikes (often carrying three people), and expensive-looking cars that one travel book describes as belonging to the “Khmer riche”. We meander through a landscape featuring older colonial-style buildings, tiny street stalls, glistening new developments, and colourful, competing signs advertising different mobile phone providers and plans. Old and new are as intertwined in the urban fabric as the various vehicles on the roads. We eventually swing into a quieter street and pull up at the hotel, and as I step out onto the street, my senses are instantly met with the rich aromas of various fruits and meats I can’t yet identify but can’t wait to learn. 

As I enter my room, I feel like I’ve been hurled headfirst into the thick of things, which to be honest, is terrifying. I confess that for these first few moments I had “I Still Call Australia Home” running through my head. However, as if approaching the downward drop of a rollercoaster, after this initial terror comes a rush of adrenaline, excitement and joy. I’m here to learn and grow, and feel so privileged to be able to step into the shoes of another culture (though in literal terms, Australia and Cambodia share a preference for thongs!). 

As I switch on the television and curiously flick through the mix of French, British, American, Korean, and Khmer channels, I am once again reminded of how small and interconnected the world is, and how we need to value opportunities for cross-cultural sharing and embracing differences. This is important in a globalised economy and valuable for international politics, but most of all, it is an essential part of being human. I can’t wait for all that this exchange will bring.

Destination: Indonesia

Omar (Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science) received a New Colombo Plan scholarship to study at the University of Indonesia for six months, and undertake an internship with Wesfarmer’s GreenCap Consultancy in Jakarta.

I’ve been sitting in my room for almost two hours now, staring at a blank document wondering how to encapsulate my experiences here in Indonesia that genuinely feel indescribable. 

Prior to being accepted to the program, I had a narrow perception of Indonesia that was limited to narratives of controversially convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby, the infamous tourist haven of Bali, and rhetoric about Indonesia as the world’s largest Muslim country. 

Two months into the New Colombo Plan Mobility Program and my current perspective of the archipelago is brighter. I live in Depok, caught within the ever-growing drift of Jakarta’s urban sprawl. The metropolitan area is one of dichotomies and contradictions, where the ultra-rich and the devastatingly poor live side-by-side within a multi-ethnic and multi-religious melting pot. 

The traffic congestion is intense on a good day and many buildings reflect Indonesia’s developmental challenges. Yet within the mayhem that is Jakarta, I have fallen in love with the people’s hospitality, their dynamic land, the collectivist culture, and the transformative experiences of undertaking this program. 

The immersion program consists of several activities that involve studying, working and living in Indonesia for six months. All seven students in the program are studying Indonesian at the University of Indonesia while undertaking coursework dealing with the challenges and opportunities the nation faces. We also have the option of undertaking a short-term internship within the public/private sector or with a non-government organisation. I will do an internship with Wesfarmers consultancy group in their Jakarta office. 

Apart from the language, cultural and work experiences, this program offers me the opportunity to gain an international outlook that has fostered my personal growth. Understanding the motifs, practices and ethics of differing cultural groups has tested my value system in ways I had not anticipated. 

I really encourage any student interested in Southeast Asia to capitalise on opportunities on offer through the New Colombo Plan Mobility Program. It will definitely be a milestone: academically, professionally and personally. I am sitting in my boarding house wondering what Indonesia will offer me tomorrow.

Bridget (Bachelor of International and Global Studies and Bachelor of Laws) received a 2015 New Colombo Plan Scholarship to study at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia.

I’ve been living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, for a month. I have had three weeks to settle into my room, two weeks of classes and a whole lot of fun. As an Indonesian language major with two years of Bahasa Indonesia under my belt, I feel quite comfortable speaking and understanding most of what is happening around me. The confusion has come with getting used to new rules and social norms, which is embarrassing but also incredibly enlightening – it’s the whole reason I’m here. Cross-cultural experiences require you to understand that all the things you have come to think of as “normal” are not the only way to do things, nor are they necessarily the right way to do things. They are just different.

It is rude in Javanese culture to pass by someone on the street (particularly someone older than you) without nodding your head, smiling and wishing them a good day. When someone asks you where you’ve come from or where you’re going, they don’t want to interrogate you, it’s an equivalent question to “How are you going?”

And no, the food here isn’t “weird”, there are just different fruits and vegetables that grow in this part of the world, flavoured with different things and yes, everyone has BBM, Line, Whatsapp, Viber, Facebook and a variety of other social media platforms you may never have never heard of.

Classes at Universitas Gadjah Mada are very different to the University of Sydney. Exams can be scheduled in one week, readings are all soft copy, students are always ready to respond to the lecturer’s questions or laugh or generally participate. There are no tutorials but lectures are so interactive they really combine the two. Listening to lectures in my second language is difficult but gratifying and while the content is similar (most of the readings are academic journal articles in English) the perspective is unique. The most valuable things about studying in Indonesia is losing my Australian/Western lens and seeing things through Indonesia’s eyes.

So far, my stay has been thoroughly enjoyable and taught me a lot. I really look forward to learning even more about Indonesian culture, build more skills in cross-cultural communication (beyond language) and use this knowledge when I come home to Australia.

February 2015 saw four University of Sydney students (Irwin Ting, Darlene Lam, Dini Hapukotuwa and Isabel MacPhillamy) head to Indonesia as part of a pilot exchange program with the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. The rotation fulfilled the requirements for the student’s final year Public Practice placement for the Bachelor of Veterinary Science degree.

We started our program with a two-week placement with the reproduction unit. We jumped right in, heading out to smallholder farmer collectives and participating in reproductive investigations. The key issues we found relating to reproductive failures were nutrition – mainly the inability to sustain adequate, year-round nutrition; heat-detection issues; dystocia (obstructed labour) and general husbandry and management problems.

Following the initial farm visits we presented our findings and possible solutions to the students and lecturers. There was keen interest in the suggestion of forage plots to improve the nutrition of smallholder cattle.

The following week involved a field trip to the Sirijo Wagyu Bull Centre and the Barturaden Dairy in Java. We saw how the Indonesians run a dairy, which was not dissimilar to many Australian dairies. Lameness was a key issue, along with mastitis and reproductive failures. Indonesia has recently imported dairy goats, and it will be exciting to see their systems improve and evolve as the economy grows.

Another highlight of the trip was being interviewed on local Yogyakarta radio. Many of the callers were interested in learning about farming practices in Australia so we were more than happy to give them a brief overview. We also got to meet and help treat a 4-metre Olive python suffering from stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth), and were visitors to the main government Disease Investigation Centre were we had some refresher lessons on key exotic diseases.

Everyone at the University of Gadjah Mada has shown us amazing hospitality, making sure we experience the many culinary delights Indonesia has to offer and ensuring we get to see the tourist sights, including Merapi Mountain, Borobudur Temple, the Water Castle Taman Sari, and Malioboro Street.

Destination: Singapore

Genevieve visited the flour mills of Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, courtesy of GrainGrowers (an industry organisation promoting the development of a sustainable, viable and efficient grain industry), after winning the Australian Universities Crops Competition in 2014.

Singapore is a conveniently located area for easy transport of goods through ports and by road. It is also the most affluent of the countries visited, reflected in market demand for healthier wheat products (many baked goods in Southeast Asia have a high sugar content to meet taste preferences of the market). 

Malaysia, although less developed than Singapore, has a very high level of production of wheat-based food products, steadily importing 1.3 million tonnes annually, 680,000 of which originates in Australia. A visit to Soon Soon group milling company based in Penang highlighted the impact of deregulation of Australia’s wheat industry. Issues included consistency of wheat quality, difficulty in attaining national crop quality information and supply reliability. 

Bakeries in Southeast Asia are moving away from “no-time” dough production, where dough is mixed at high speed to reduce development time, towards a method known as “sponge and dough”, a bulk-fermentation method used in most bakeries, including the Arytza bakery we visited in Kuala Lumpur.

Jakarta, Indonesia, was the final destination on the tour. With Indonesia’s population of close to 250 million and wheat consumption per capita of 21.6kg, Indonesia is by far Australia’s biggest export market: Indonesia imports 2.6 million tonnes annually, of which Australia contributes 57 percent. Importing such a large amount of wheat means Indonesia is home to numerous large flour mills including Bogasari flour mill in Jakarta, the largest in the world. Bogasari is a well-established brand that distributes products internationally as well as having a strong domestic market. 

On our 2015 Asian study tour we visited three countries with varying levels of development and it was interesting to see this reflected in production lines. Comparing small bakeries and noodle factories with a facility such as Arytza bakery (which makes 2000 dozen buns an hour for McDonald’s) was eye opening, showing the impact of mechanisation and highly regulated production.

Southeast Asia is an important market for Australian wheat. Australia’s current trade priorities need to focus on maintaining and expanding this key market, as it is clear that competitive grains are being produced in other parts of the world. Following deregulation it is important to enhance trade relationships with these countries as demand is expected to increase by 3 percent a year over the coming five years.

Angus travelled to Singapore in 2015 on a two-week Sydney Southeast Asia Centre field school to analyse Singapore’s housing policy.

I’ve always loved travelling. I first heard about the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre through a friend and within a semester an opportunity presented itself: the Singapore Housing field school program. How great does that sound? Never having been to Singapore, I had little idea what the Housing Development Board was or even what the Singaporean housing situation was like.

I wasn’t alone in the quest to find a research topic, develop it, and present it all within two weeks. Twenty other students were also selected, representing the disciplines of Asian studies, architecture, business and political economy. These students quickly became friends as we embarked on a journey to present qualitative research of real significance before the week was up.

My group chose to research links between housing policy and policy for the elderly. Finding subjects to interview was a bit of a struggle, but through our academic support we found a community member living in a government-supported flat, and he and his family were willing to be interviewed.

He was open-minded, insightful and hospitable. The difference between travelling for tourism and travelling to learn are special moments like these. After talking for an hour or two over cups of tea and answering our endless questions, our host was kind enough to drive us back to the station where we reflected on what we had learnt. Looking back on it now, the family probably didn’t realise the extent to which their answers helped us. It wasn't just the information they shared, it was more than that – it was having the opportunity to see a different perspective and a local perspective. There were no barriers to what our interviewees could say, they were not spruiking the government line or demanding more resources. They simply spoke about their worries in relation to ageing and housing, and this was incredibly valuable.

The field school required me to have an open mind, a healthy dose of character and tolerance for a lack of sleep, but without a doubt, it was an unforgettable experience.

Destination: Vietnam

Leonie travelled to Hanoi in 2019 on a 2.5-week SSEAC interdisciplinary field school to analyse urbanisation in Vietnam.

The 2019 Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s (SSEAC) Vietnam program was the first time such a field school was offered to postgraduate students. When the opportunity to participate presented itself, I jumped at the chance! I recall the email reading something along the lines of:

‘Wanted! Urbanisation students for cross-disciplinary adventure of a lifetime; examining some of the most pertinent global issues in the contemporary world’. Wow, I thought and submitted my application immediately.

The field school was aimed at examining the big “wicked” issues that the rapidly urbanising capital city of Hanoi was experiencing. The essence of the field school was to approach an independent study into these issues from a multidisciplinary perspective. Some of the issues explored included: politics, environmental degradation, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, pollution, health, inequality and migration. Students from the disciplines of medicine, economics, development studies, urbanism and public health were invited to collaborate in the field school.

In the first week, we focused on learning about the history and context of Vietnam, as well as forging relationships with our international partner, The Woolcock Institute. During this time, we visited some prestigious organisations; think the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the Australian Embassy to Vietnam, the National Lung Hospital, etc.; places I would never begin to fathom gaining access to, if not for the connections with SSEAC.

The field school had also arranged introductions to grassroots initiatives, people who are battling Vietnam’s issues from the bottom-up. These included renewable energy advocates, migrant women business support networks and those working in the space of promoting public health practices in response to air pollution.

While we were of course there to learn, the people and organisations we met were equally interested in understanding our own views, experiences and perspectives on the various issues we examined. In that way, the field school felt more like an exchange of ideas rather than traditional coursework.

The second half of the field school was dedicated to undertaking our own research projects and presenting our findings to our peers. Our group investigated the impacts of rural student migration to Hanoi and what motivated students to move, sometimes hundreds of kilometres from their families and support networks. Rural to urban migration was one prevalent issue that was found to be exacerbating Hanoi’s rapid urbanisation and resulting in a drain of resources for rural areas.

The field school was a steep learning curve (think traffic survival tactics and ordering food with language barriers), but stepping outside of my comfort zone was well worth the challenge. I found learning how to collaborate and construct an interdisciplinary research methodology really challenged the typical classroom learning environment and was incredibly rewarding.

As important as it is to build networks within our own discipline and peers, the opportunity to cross-collaborate with others and to look at issues from multiple perspectives and lenses is an enriching experience. I made friends and contacts with people I would have never met on campus if not for the field school!

Southeast Asia has a rapidly developing economy, rich history and culture, and will continue to be an increasingly important neighbour to Australia. Having the opportunity to stay and study there allows for a greater understanding of the region, its culture and the challenges that it faces.

I would highly recommend a SSEAC field school to anyone and would encourage you to seize the opportunity to step outside your comfort zone and grow immensely from the experience.

Field School: Singapore Housing Policy 2015

Photo credit: Elizabeth Hung.