by Janelle May
ACICIS Secretariat Officer (2013-2018)
ACICIS Deputy Resident Director (2018-2020)

For the past two years I have been living and working in Jakarta, serving as Deputy Resident Director for the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). In late March I returned to Perth from Jakarta for what I thought was a temporary relocation as the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, our students were sent home and, subsequently, all our programs were cancelled for the remainder of the year.

Since this time, as the pandemic has unfolded, it has become increasingly clear that ACICIS will not be able to send students to Indonesia in the near future, with no sign that international travel restrictions will be lifted anytime soon in Australia.

As a non-profit organisation, 80% of ACICIS’ income is derived from program fees, so we have lost most of our income for the year and are slowly running our bank accounts down paying the salaries for a staffing profile intended to service 500 plus students per year.

In June, the ACICIS Reference Group convened to decide on the immediate future of the organisation given these two factors. It was decided that we need to immediately reduce our staffing profile by 60% in both Indonesia and Perth. If circumstances haven’t improved by August (that would be any government or external funding coming through or any other forecast income – for example if we ran some programs online from the end of the year until travel resumes) we will need to reduce staffing by 50% again. This will force us to go into some form of hibernation until the organisation can hopefully get up and running again sometime next year.

What that means for me, personally, is that I will be finishing with ACICIS at the end of July. As I exit the organisation I’ve been involved with for over eight years, I thought I’d offer some reflections on what it has been like to be along for the wild ride of seeing the organisation grow to what it is today.

Introductions: the student years

Like many of the students that pass through ACICIS programs, I first heard of the organisation during my Bachelor degree at Curtin University. I was studying to be an Indonesian teacher and ACICIS was a mainstay of the Indonesian program, as it is at many universities, and an icon for all Indonesian language studies students. It was something Bu Indra and Pak Ian always promoted and we had a constant stream of returning students in our tutorials sharing their experiences with us. Unfortunately, being a young and somewhat impatient 18 year old I didn’t really want to push my four-year degree out to five years by taking a semester to study abroad, so I didn’t take up the opportunity at this point.

After graduating and teaching Indonesian at a Perth high school for three years, though, I came to regret my decision more and more and decided to enrol in a Master of Arts in Asian Studies at Murdoch University so I could finally take up the opportunity to ‘do an ACICIS semester’ and have the coveted experience of living and studying in Yogyakarta.

I completed ACICIS’ Development Studies Immersion Program (DSIP) in Yogyakarta in early 2012, and it was one of the best decisions I made. After six weeks studying Indonesian language, as well as a bit of Javanese, at Gadjah Mada University (UGM), myself and three other ACICIS students joined a group of UGM students undertaking Kuliah Kerja Nyata (KKN) or Student Community Service and spent two months living in a village not far from Yogyakarta working on community development projects. We taught the women about micro-enterprise and as all ACICIS students probably do, taught the primary school aged children English. It was tough adjusting to working in a different cultural setting, but so rewarding. And my semester started my journey of introducing others to the same life-changing experiences.

Journeys: The work life

Just under a year after I returned from my ACICIS semester to continue my Masters degree, a part-time position opened up at the ACICIS Secretariat, which at that time was based at Murdoch University, as David Armstrong was reducing his load. As an afterthought, I applied. Little did I know at this point that it would be the start of a seven-year journey.

For the first two years I worked on and off part-time for the organisation as I completed field research for my Masters dissertation and did some travel. During the first six-month period, one of my main tasks was helping with the acquittal of a Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) grant that established ACICIS’ ‘Indonesia From the Ground Up!’ tour. After two iterations of the tour, the funding ran out, and so did our participants. This was my first lesson in what happens to programs when funding runs out. The work done on this program didn’t go to waste, though, but went on to form the basis of many of our other tour programs.

In early 2014, I was asked if I wanted to come back for another part-time contract to write a grant application for a new Government funding initiative called the New Colombo Plan (NCP). This was an exciting development for us, as it was the first funding scheme that consortia were able to apply for, as opposed to leaving the work of submitting applications to our individual Australian member universities. I submitted our first ever NCP application, went off to travel the world for a few months and then came back and buckled in for what was to be a period of enormous and rapid growth for ACICIS.

A lot has changed in my seven years working for ACICIS. When I first started working in the Secretariat in 2013, it was just Liam and I, with Matt joining us soon after. By 2017 we had eight staff working on the Australia side of the operation and had relocated from Murdoch University to The University of Western Australia. Over in Indonesia, we grew from six staff in the Yogyakarta office in 2013 to 25 staff across five cities in Indonesia by 2020. Our program locations expanded from four locations to seven. We developed eight new programs. And we secured $15 million in New Colombo Plan funding for Australian students.

During these seven years we also significantly adjusted our marketing and application processes for students. From receiving paper applications from approximately 20-30 students per semester, we grew a ‘strategy’ of what had been  one ACICIS staff member sending a couple of emails to Indonesian lecturers reminding them applications were due soon, to five marketing and student recruitment officers processing over 300 online applications at a time, working with various faculties and study abroad offices at our member universities. In fact, I distinctly remember the day when Liam, Matt and I realised that our marketing strategy of sending those couple of emails to Indonesian lecturers was not cutting it when we’d only received a handful of applications by the deadline. Being around for these changes has meant I’ve had the privilege of being involved in the planning, development and implementation of processes, procedures, policies and systems, taking the organisation from a small, humble operation to the exemplar that it is today, from both sides of the operation.

As Secretariat Officer I was involved in developing four programs from the Australia side of the operation, including ACICIS’ School Tours, Indonesian Language Short Course, Agriculture Semester Program and Agriculture Professional Practicum. This involved liaising with host and member universities, curriculum consultation and design, and developing marketing and promotional materials. I worked with the Asia NZ Foundation to plan bespoke tours for teachers. I planned a series of events to celebrate and commemorate the organisation’s 20th anniversary across Canberra, Yogyakarta and Perth. I submitted NCP grant applications which were successful in securing the organisation and our member universities over $12 million in funding for students. I also had the pleasure of playing administrator to our National Reference Group, a collective of some of the loveliest and most accomplished people committed to student mobility in Indonesia you will meet.

In mid-2018 I transitioned up to Jakarta to take on the role of Deputy Resident Director (DRD). It was an exciting and somewhat nerve-wracking adventure. I was very eager to move from the administrative side of the organisation to the hands-on implementation, working with my Indonesian colleagues to liaise with member universities, design and implement new programs, welcome and help students find their way in Indonesia. As DRD I oversaw eight programs in Jakarta, Bandung and Bogor, and at times had 200+ students to oversee. Highlights of my time include scoping and moving our Jakarta office to its first ever commercial property, overseeing our largest ever cohort of professional practicum students in Jakarta, piloting our Agriculture Professional Practicum, and welcoming our first ever group of Monash Global Immersion Guarantee students to Jakarta. During my tenure I also helped students navigate a tsunami in West Java, an earthquake the day before orientation commenced for our semester students, a volcano eruption, violent riots and protests around the 2019 Presidential election and the worst flooding Jakarta has seen in a decade the day 130 students arrived in the city to commence summer programs. I remember sitting at home on New Year’s Eve as the heavy tropical rain started in the early afternoon and did not stop until early afternoon on New Year’s Day. There were many frantic messages to staff, checking everyone was OK and coordinating with hotels and students to make sure everyone was arriving safely and crafting contingency plans. I can safely say there was never a dull moment in the job.

To see this period of growth come to a screeching halt due to something so beyond our control is heartbreaking to say the least. We were always aware of the vulnerability and fragility of our organisation as a not-for-profit working in international education, and we often wondered what might bring our period of rapid growth to an end. Would it be the end of the NCP? Would it be another security threat or natural disaster? Would it be non-compliance with Australian Government policy? Unfortunately it was nothing we could prevent or fix.

Reflections: The end

I remember thinking when I was teaching that working for ACICIS would be my ‘dream’ job. It includes the educational aspect of teaching, but you get to deal with adults who are making the choice to study Indonesian, rather than teenagers for whom a language is a compulsory subject, in a very hands on, immersive environment. And despite the many challenges of the job, it really was. What we get to do is so unique.

I also had the unique privilege of working on both sides of the operation – from working in the Perth office, processing applications and sending students off, applying for NCP funding to support them, to receiving students in-country as DRD. I got to see the full spectrum of our operations.

The reason I love ACICIS and what we do is that not only does it introduce students to our nearest neighbour, the largest Islamic nation in the world, an important trading partner and a country beyond Bali, it opens students’ minds to the world, a different culture, ways of thinking and being beyond our own. Your average young Australian doesn’t need to learn a second language to get by in the world, unlike our Indonesian counterparts who often speak three or four by the time they leave school. Australia is quite isolated with no international land borders, and we can exist and subsist quite easily without interacting too much with the outside world, unless we are privileged enough and decide to travel for leisure. Living, studying and working in a country as diverse and dynamic as Indonesia really opens eyes and minds to a full array of lifestyles, socio-economic statuses, religious stances, opinions, worldviews, and life experiences. And as uncomfortable, frustrating and challenging as it can be rubbing up against these things daily, it undoubtedly makes you more adaptable, open minded, patient, nuanced and accepting.

ACICIS also makes Indonesia accessible. If a foreigner would like to go to Indonesia for more than 30 days, for reasons other than tourism (largely), you must get a sponsored visa, which can be a long, complicated and frustrating process. As a foreigner, breaking into social groups outside of touristic areas can be very difficult and interacting in society in general can be hard if you have limited or no Indonesian language skills. Over 25 years, ACICIS has built and developed apparatus to make the visa application process simpler, paved the way for applications to Indonesian universities, set students up with a support and social system, and helped them navigate a foreign educational and professional system, where the culture is vastly different from their own. Call me biased, but there is no way this would happen at the scale it does without ACICIS. It has been said many times before, but it is people-to-people links and soft diplomacy at its finest.

As part of my job these past two years, I was able to welcome and introduce students to this. To the amazing, friendly, dynamism of Indonesia. I got to travel to different cities around Java, and watch students dip their toes in, fully immerse and find their way and thrive in a foreign university system, making friends, expanding their networks, attending and speaking at conferences, helping run social organisations. I also got to work with amazing staff who constantly went above and beyond to help students settle in and navigate Indonesia. From midnight hospital runs, to searching the entire city for a top sheet for their new kos, nothing was ever too much to ask. I’ve run into alumni and ex-staff members across Indonesia, now working for major corporations, businesses, NGOs and government. I was never too far from a member of keluarga ACICIS. It makes you feel part of something bigger.

And now as I try to stop saying ‘we’, I, like many of my colleagues who are facing redundancy, am scratching my head as to what job will provide me with the same challenges and rewards that ACICIS does. What other job offers all this?

My hope is that ACICIS will come out the other end of the pandemic a little misshapen and worse for wear, having lost quite a bit of institutional knowledge, but with the strong history and foundation to get back on track and recommence the good work of soft diplomacy. But the sad thing is I don’t know the future, and we can only hope for the best – personally, and for the organisation.