Ever wonder what it’s like as a parent who’s taken a career break to go back to school? In this post, Dhini Purnamasari shares her experience through her career, from pursuing undergrad and working in Singapore, to relocating halfway around the world to Cambridge, MA and becoming a stay-at-home mother of three young children, and finally deciding to pursue graduate studies after a career break. In celebration of Mother’s Day in the US and many other countries, by sharing her story Dhini hopes to inspire other mothers who are interested in going back to school to take a chance. Dhini also previously participated in Indonesia Mengglobal’s Mentorship Program as a mentor, and last year as a mentee while applying for graduate school. The application period for this year’s mentorship program closes on May 15th, register now!
Before I became a stay-at-home parent of three young children, I spent 11 years of my life in Singapore, studying, working, and building a family. After completing all my scholarship obligations in 2016, I planned to relocate and build a career in Indonesia. However, my plan was disrupted when my husband received an offer to study at MIT, a possibly life-changing opportunity that he had worked on for three years.
New Life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
I resigned from my latest job in Singapore and moved to Cambridge, MA in August 2016. Despite the worrisome political climate that year, the complex logistics of moving our family across the globe, and my visa not allowing me to work in the US, our relocation gave me a breath of fresh air. For the first time, I was able to have quality time and take better care of my family. I didn’t miss the hustle of weekly meal prepping, pumping breastmilk at work, or intermittently checking on my children and their nanny at home. I felt that it was the right decision.
While I’ll never regret my decision to focus on my family, being a stay-at-home parent is no bed of roses. Losing my professional identity and source of income (to some extent my independence) broke my heart. I missed the exciting discussions with my colleagues at work, the conversations with the ship captains onboard, and even the late-night calls to respond to work emergencies. Living in a community full of brainiacs certainly didn’t help as I felt like a fly on the wall sometimes. Looking back, I could only make it through those hard times with the support and kindness from friends, neighbors, and the communities around me.
As I settled to my new routines, I started planning for the next step for me. Unfortunately, parenting is not commonly seen as worthy as full-time employment when applying to jobs or schools. My leaving work to focus on my family would appear as a gaping hole in my resume. As I planned to get a professional degree to jump-start my career, I found ways to fill that resume gap with productive activities mainly by investing in myself and working with the local communities.
Improving My Academic Standing
School admissions committees look at your academic qualities to see if you can strive in their learning environment. The last time I was in school was in 2013 and my academic achievements looked outdated. Therefore, I needed more convincing proof of academic qualities.
I was fortunate enough to live in the vicinity of many reputable universities in the country. When time permitted, I attended workshops and seminars organized by local universities and the city.
I also took two courses from Harvard under their Division of Continuing Education – one in public international law and one in political corruption. The learning process came with both excitement and challenges. For a mother of multiple children with a spouse studying and working full time, having the time to study for long hours without interruption was a luxury. Mostly, I studied after the children’s bedtime, from 9 pm to 2 am. Multitasking and prioritizing are key in managing all the tasks at hand, for examples, I studied with a feverish sleepy kid on my lap on countless occasions. With lots of planning, prioritizing, and hard work, I managed to get As for both courses and get a letter of recommendation from one of the professors which helped me land my graduate school offer.
Going into Community Works
One of the surprising aspects of living halfway around the world from Indonesia was the feeling of “being at home” in this foreign land. I’ve had many chances to connect with the vibrant Indonesian community here through events organized by the Indonesian Community of New England, Inc. (ICONE). Its leadership and hard-working volunteers inspired me to take up the offer for the role of its Director of Education and Culture in 2019. Supported by a dedicated and competent team, I led and helped organize several programs including storytelling sessions, a dance workshop, and meetings with Indonesian public figures.
As a proud Indonesian, I wanted to contribute to the cultural diversity in my new community. I started small by performing a few traditional dances at nearby communities.
Eventually, I founded Boston Cendrawasih, an independent, free, and open-to-all dance group specializing in traditional Indonesian dances. To date, we have performed in many venues including Harvard University, Boston University, MIT, Berklee Performance Center, the Cambridge Arts River Festival and the yearly Indonesian Festival in the heart of Boston.
Although satisfying, multiple volunteering works can be taxing for parents with young children. Scrambling for childcare, trying to work while consoling whaling children, and exhausting yourself and your family with schedule-packed weekends are inevitable. Through it all, it was still worth it.
School Research and Application
Going to school in your 30s requires careful consideration, especially if your decision affects your family. To me, studying full time means more costly childcare and forsaking the opportunity to work and earn money. It also means more intense juggling between studying, caring for my family (and myself), socializing with friends and community work. So how would I know that graduate study will be worth my time and efforts?
Firstly, I needed to find a school nearby. Having a family that can’t move to another city or country at the moment is my reality. Secondly, I’m not at the age where I care about fame or parental approval. Therefore, I needed to find a program that best suits my interests and passion despite what others may think. Lastly, since I had no income in the past few years, I would need financial assistance to study, ideally given or administered by the school itself. The Fletcher School at Tufts University came up as a great choice because it checked the above criteria and as a bonus, it has a research center for maritime studies which coincides with my passion and work experience. Not to mention its excellent reputation and education quality in the field of international affairs (certainly not a country club!).
In dealing with the nitty-gritty of the modern school application process, I had lots of help from my husband and a generous friend who’s a current student at Fletcher. I also benefited from Indonesia Mengglobal’s (IM) Mentorship Program as its structured timeline helped me finish the different aspects of the school application on time. IM also paired myself with a mentor who studied international affairs in an Ivy League school and works in this field, who helped guide me through the application process and keep me accountable. If you’re interested in learning more about IM’s Mentorship program, you can check out the FAQ here. Note that the application period for this year’s mentorship program closes in a few days, so if you’re interested in applying I would recommend doing that soon!
Lessons Learned and What’s Next
In March this year, I received the good news of acceptance and scholarship for the Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) Program at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University. I believe that the work during my career break played an important role in improving my skills and proved my worth to the school admission committee and I’m grateful for all those who worked with me.
These are the valuable lessons that I learned from the process of getting admitted to Fletcher:
- Partnership with my spouse was vital to my success (and his). Finding the time to volunteer and study, and dividing parental responsibilities require commitment and compromise from both parties.
- Sometimes “done is better than perfect”. We need to do our best in any endeavours we take, but we also need to acknowledge our limitations and make do with what we have instead of striving to be perfect.
- Learn from your community and the people around you through the means available to you.
- Set a long-term goal and keep working your way towards it.
Although I can barely contain my excitement to join the Fletcher family, the reality of being a parent still hasn’t escaped me. Impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, schools and daycares have closed, and the US student visa processing has halted. With Fletcher’s approval, I’m deferring my enrolment to 2021. Meanwhile, I’m planning for childcare and a strategy to balance school and family. More importantly, I’m getting endless support from the school’s faculty members and its career office team to prep myself for a better starting point. Looking forward to a year full of books and fun with the kiddos!
Photos provided by author unless otherwise stated.