By Robin Bednall (Semester 18/Feb 2004)
University of Melbourne
This article appeared in The Jakarta Post on Monday 29 October 2007.
R.L. Stevenson once famously said, “No man is useless while he has a friend”.
Few people have more typified this saying than Lestari Widyastuti, the engine room of student exchange organization, the Australian Consortium of In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), and the beaming face of Indonesia that has greeted nervous Australian exchange students making their first forays into a strange new country for well over a decade. Lestari passed away unexpectedly just before Idul Fitri, leaving many shocked that her selflessness and habit of constantly placing others first had ultimately betrayed her, as she succumbed to her private battle with untreated tuberculosis.
She was only 39.
The ACICIS was founded in 1994 by a consortium of Australian universities who were hoping to simplify the bureaucratic hurdles necessary for students to obtain study permits and course credit for studies undertaken in Indonesia.
Over the years it has assisted thousands of Australian students in undertaking six-12 month exchange study programs in Yogyakarta and East Java, tackling curriculum as diverse as the Javanese gamelan to Islamic business studies.
Many of these students have gone on to use the invaluable linguistic and cross-cultural communication skills, and the self-confidence they gained during their studies to wield significant influence on the government and corporate worlds — they are diplomats, aid workers, interpreters, peace-builders, business consultants and lawyers.
Most strikingly, these influential former students, who proudly respond to the title “”former anak-ACICIS””, share a deep affinity for Indonesia, and return again and again to live, to experience and to contribute to the growth and development of the nation.
Many would argue that the experience and perspectives of these students has done more for Australian-Indonesian relations than successive generations of hard-fought but slowly gained government-to-government treaties, negotiations and cooperation efforts.
Few of these “”anak-ACICIS”” would have lasted in their first weeks in Yogyakarta without Lestari, who worked with the program almost since its inception.
The hundreds of condolence messages sent to the ACICIS website in the weeks following Lestari’s passing are testimony to her kind, accepting, giving nature, and the way that she existed comfortably between the seemingly poles-apart cultures of Indonesia and Australia.
Former resident director Gerry van Klinken remarked in his condolence message that, “one of the nicest discoveries for Australian students when they arrived in Yogyakarta was that their Javanese sister friend, Lestari, enjoyed a beer too: the end of their first misconception about Java!”
Reading through the condolences on the website or following the barrage of emails on the ACICIS mailing list — where lunches, dinners and parties are being planned in her honor by the ACICIS Diaspora all around the world, it is impossible to overlook the simple majesty of who Lestari was.
Every student who came to Yogyakarta started excited, apprehensive, nervous or perhaps overwhelmed, and Lestari helped turn each and every one of them into capable speakers of the Indonesian language, lovers of Indonesian culture and confident human beings wanting to explore the world and new cultures around them.
Lestari was the friend who could be called on at 3 a.m. to find a doctor for a sudden bout of typhoid; the friend that could be counted on to come out for an evening in Sosrowijayan, in Hugo’s cafe, in Shakers Lesehan, and wherever it was bring it to life; She was the first friend that everyone called when they returned to Yogyakarta after a time away; Lestari was the first friendly face these students came to know and love.
For thousands of people all over the world to feel exactly the same way, that Lestari was someone uniquely special and intimately close, is an amazing, awe-inspiring achievement.
Any of the students who passed through ACICIS could write an obituary here, and carry on for several pages, without feeling like they had touched the surface of what a great friend and cultural ambassador for Indonesia she was.
Lestari was ACICIS; she lived it and breathed life into it. As she did for the legacy of Australia-Indonesia relations that she has cemented in perpetuity, and the hearts of the thousands of students that she uplifted so selflessly.
Former ACICIS student Steven Wright summed it up perfectly: “”Whenever I think of ACICIS, Lestari is in the same thought. Looking for advice? See Lestari, looking for a shop? See Lestari, looking for a bike to rent or buy? See Lestari, looking for a license? See Lestari, looking for a friend to talk to? See Lestari, for a friend to go out with? See Lestari. I know ACICIS will survive without Lestari, but these are big shoes to fill.
ACICIS Study Indonesia continues to fund Indonesian students on The Lestari Widyastuti Scholarship. Donations can be made to go towards this fund.