Studying (Indonesia) Abroad: Notes from 10th Yale-Cornell Northeastern Conference on Indonesia

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What do Kalimantan, the World Bank, and Girl Scout Cookies have in common? We found out last March at the 10th Northeastern Conference on graduate studies on Indonesia, hosted by the Yale University Indonesia Forum. The conference is a bi-annual event, held at Yale University in the spring and Cornell University in the fall. The theme this year: “Social Dynamics of Sustainable Development in Indonesia.”

If you’re thinking of studying abroad in the US, this is why. The conference invited undergraduate and graduate students in all areas of study who are interested in learning about Indonesia.

As Indonesia is rapidly growing economically, the conference asks, what are the implications of developmental policies to human societies and the environment? How has the global interacted with the local, the national with the tribal, in these political, economic, and dialectical tensions? What are the challenges to sustainable growth and how can the country’s political process meet these challenges?

The keynote speech came from ecological anthropologist Dr. Michael Dove (Yale University). The conference was held in conjunction with the Yale Indonesia Forum Spring Workshop with scholars Dr. Tania Li (University of Toronto), Dr. Elizabeth Collins (Ohio University), and Dr. Haryo Winarso (education attaché at the Kedutaan Besar RI and associate professor at ITB).

Studying abroad in the US, it was remarkable to see the vast range of academic interest on Indonesia, spanning disciplines from history to economics to anthropology. Students hailed from as far away as Hawaii and Canada, revealing the increasingly transnational collaborations in the academic sphere. The topics presented were wildly fascinating. Michael Dove’s keynote speech charted natural resource exploitation in Kalimantan. Tania Li, meanwhile, challenged the foundations of the “poverty” narrative of transition. Elizabeth Collins highlighted the exploitative collusion plaguing resource policies in Sumatra, while Haryo Winarso examined trends in urban development in the Jakartan metropolitan area, again problematizing elitism and resource distribution.

We also saw interesting papers from graduate students across North America. We heard, for example, Zach Anderson (University of Toronto) on REDD and theories of structural violence, David Cespedes (University of Michigan) on urban planning and negotiating Jakarta’s floods, and Priza Marendraputra and Lauren Esaki (University of Hawaii at Manoa) on Bandung’s green spaces.

The two-day event offered a space for different ideas on Indonesia to converge with an intellectual excitement rarely found in Indonesian academia. Some of the issues discussed – from palm oil plantations to Jakarta’s rampant urban development – were contentious and, naturally, not all present agreed. We touched on resource distribution, the displacement of traditional communities, biodiversity, and, indeed Girl Scout Cookies (they use palm oil).

More relevant to those who may be reading this, however, it reminded me of the amazing opportunities of studying in the US (and Canada, incidentally, as our Toronto friends showed) while still pursuing my academic interest and personal ties to Indonesia. In addition to learning about each other’s research, the conference allowed me to get input on my own studies, from reading recommendations to graduate school plans.

Moreover, it sensitized me to the interesting ways that an American education (especially the liberal arts approach) critically analyzes historical, cultural, and political currents as it affects Indonesia’s contemporary concerns. Meanwhile, such rigorous analytical approaches are grounded by the perspectives of Indonesians in the nusantara and abroad through some of the researchers’ ethnographic approach.

Many of the graduate students and professors at the conference were already planning their next research trip to Indonesia, getting research funding from their universities or grants. (I, too, was fortunate to be able to return to Indonesia and do research in Jakarta and Yogyakarta last summer, thanks to fellowships from my university.) Studying in the US has given me the intellectual liberties and motivation to examine Indonesia’s socio-political realities and history from critical perspectives. In the meantime though, I’ll keep trudging on my thesis on Raffles, Borobudur, and a material historiography of Java with the aide of professors, friends, and colleagues, half the world away.

Photo Credit: Palm Oil Plantation via Wikimedia Commons