How the son of two farmers graduated from Columbia despite all odds

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Robinson Sinurat, graduating from Columbia University

For many of us, the new year prompts a lot of reflection and soul-searching. Whether it’s wanting to exercise more, or deciding to apply for graduate schools, everyone has something that they’re working towards. A few weeks back, I had the honor of chatting with Robinson Sinurat, the son of two farmers who graduated from Columbia University in the City of New York despite all odds. Hearing about his life story has inspired me to be fearless and work harder, and my hope is that it will inspire you all as well.

The fifth child in a family of seven, Robinson hails from North Sumatra (hence the last name Sinurat). His parents are both farmers in Tanjung Beringin, a village just outside of Medan, the province’s capital. Neither of his parents were able to finish the 12 years of compulsory education due to financial reasons, but they made sure that their kids understood the importance of education. This is why Robinson and his siblings lived away from their parents from a very young age. While his parents lived in Tanjung Beringin, he and his siblings lived and attended school in Medan.

Robinson understood that education is the key to escaping the lower income trap — without a good education and well-paying job, it’ll be harder to turn his life around. He always wanted to go to the best schools, but they would always cost a lot of money. When it came to applying for university, his parents told him, “Kalau kamu gak masuk perguruan tinggi negeri, kamu nggak kuliah. Kamu belajar setahun lagi supaya bisa masuk negeri. (If you can’t get into a public university, then you shouldn’t attend university. You study for another year, so you can get into a public university.)” referring to his parents’ beliefs that public universities offer the best prospects.

In the end, he applied to study at Universitas Sriwijaya in Palembang, the capital of South Sumatera, and was accepted into the physics department. Physics wasn’t really where his passion lies, and many of his friends questioned his decision, but Robinson thought, “Banyak orang yang  masuk kuliah tapi gak lulus, masa gue dapet kesempatan tapi gue gak ambil? (A lot of people go to university but can’t even graduate, so if I get the opportunity to go, why would I choose to not go?)” With that mindset, he decided to accept the enrollment offer.

Unfortunately, Robinson’s parents didn’t have enough money to pay for university. He ended up borrowing IDR 3 million from a friend, most of which he used to pay for the enrollment fees. That left him with a few hundred Rupiah for accommodation and food. “Berani banget ya gue kesana gak ada uangnya. Tapi gue pikir kalau ada keinginan, pasti nanti ada jalannya lah ya. (I was so brave to move without having any money. But I just thought that if there’s a will, there will be a way.)” He wasn’t wrong. The head of a dormitory (kosan) offered to split his room and rent with Robinson. “Baik kan? Bayangin aja, orang yang baru kenal dua detik saja nawarin gitu. Bisa dibilang itulah yang bikin gue suka dengan isu toleransi lintas agama, karena dia agamanya beda sama gue, tapi dia terima. Inilah yang dinamakan saling menghargai, dan kita harus saling membantu walau beda agama. (Isn’t he so nice? Just think about it, someone who just met you two seconds ago offered his own room. You can say that that’s what got me passionate about interfaith issues. Although he had a different religion, he was still open to me. This is what you call respecting others. We have to help people even if they’re of a different faith.)”

Because he didn’t have much money left for food, throughout the first few months of his university life, he would only eat once a day. He had to prioritize the little money he had left to pay for school supplies. Coincidentally, his friend who was also in a similar financial situation decided to buy a box of Indomie (instant noodles) and offered to share it with him. “Hampir tiap hari gue makan indomie. Gue nggak enak lah ngerepotin dia terus, akhirnya gue beli biskuit Roma satu toples. Kalau tengah malem gue kelaperan, gue nangis sambil makan itu. Tapi gue pikir, gue dateng kesini dan gue harus kelar. (Almost everyday I’d eat Indomie. But I felt bad for continuously bothering him, so I decided to buy a whole jar of Roma biscuits. If I got hungry in the middle of the night, I would cry while eating them. Even though I struggled, I kept reminding myself that I’ve come all the way here and I have to finish what I started.)”

Robinson graduating from Universitas Sriwijaya in Palembang
Robinson graduating from Universitas Sriwijaya in Palembang

In order to alleviate his financial woes, he applied for a scholarship by the Indonesian government. His application was successful, and he financed his University studies independently. Robinson also started tutoring part-time to finance his own expenses, and even started sending money back to his parents. “Gue mikirnya gimana caranya supaya orang tua gue tau kalau gue berjuang di sini dan memang benar niat untuk sekolah. (I would always think about what I can do to show my parents that I am trying my best here and really do want to go to university.)” Everything he’s done, he does with the intention of making his parents happy.

In his fifth semester, he applied to attend the Indonesian Changemaker Summit in Bandung, capital of West Java. The requirement was just a one-page essay, but he spent days writing it. Luckily, he was accepted. Everything was paid for, except for the flight to Bandung. “Akhirnya gue dari Palembang ke Lampung naik kereta, dari Lampung ke Jakarta naik bus, dari Jakarta ke Bandung naik bus, totalnya Rp 125 ribu. Semua itu untuk ikut konferensi pertama selama gue hidup. (In the end I took a train from Palembang to Lampung, a bus from Lampung to Jakarta, and another bus from Jakarta to Bandung, in total costing me Rp 125,000. All of that I did just to go to my first conference in my entire life.)”

That conference changed his life. When he started university, he wanted to study geophysics, then work for an oil and gas company in hopes of making a lot of money. After the conference, he found his passion for social activism. A week after graduating, he moved to Jakarta to work for an Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). He did a lot of social work with them, traveling to small villages to provide electricity. “Walaupun kerja di NGO itu gak ada uang nya dan capek, itu bener-bener passion gue dan gue seneng banget. (Even though you don’t earn much and endure long hours working in an NGO, it was truly my passion and I was so happy.)” Although he gained a lot of experience in social work, he doesn’t have the formal education to support it. He also found it hard to progress in his social activism career without a formal degree, so he thought it was time to start applying for graduate school. Fast forward a few years, and now, Robinson has graduated from Columbia’s School of Social Work on a full scholarship from Lembaga Pengelola Dana Pendidikan (LPDP; Indonesian Endowment fund for Education).

Robinson at Columbia University
Robinson at Columbia University
Robinson at Columbia's School of Social Work
Robinson at Columbia’s School of Social Work

If anything, Robinson’s story has proved how, if there’s a will, there’s a way. We don’t get to choose what kind of circumstances we are born in, whether it be our gender, race, ethnicity, or social class, but what matters is what we choose to do with what we have and where we go from there. As Robinson says, “Be honest, be brave, and be willing. Kalau kita mencoba, kita udah menang 50% lho! (If you try, you’re already 50% of the way to getting it!)”

Look out for another article with Robinson next month about how he got accepted to Columbia and LPDP!

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This article was written by Indira Pranabudi and edited by Azira Tamzil. Featured in this article is Robinson Sinurat. In his own words:

Robinson Sinurat is an awardee of LPDP scholarship. He received his Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University, USA. He currently works for Queens Community House in New York as a Counseling Specialist. He is interested in youth, interfaith, and sustainable development issues. He is the co-founder of the International Student Caucus at Columbia School of Social Work. In 2015, He received a full scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to join the leadership program called YSEALI on Civic Engagement at the University of Nebraska Omaha, USA. In addition, he received the Ambassador’s Award for Excellence 2017 on behalf of the Indonesian Embassy in the United States.