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U-M, Indonesian students travel the world together

August 18, 2011
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New collaborative study abroad program, supported by President Obama’s 2009 agreement with Indonesia, brings students from different universities and nationalities together under the theme of religious pluralism and democracy

Indonesian summer

The group of students from Lehigh University, University of Michigan and Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia pose for a photo in Washington, D.C., at the close of their summer exchange program.

What did you do on your summer vacation?

University of Michigan undergrads Carrie Burgess and Ellen Myers
spent a month traveling to Indonesia and parts of the United States through a unique cultural exchange program for college students.

The two soon-to-be U-M seniors traveled with four students from Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia’s oldest university, and two students from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

The group of eight traveled in both Indonesia and the U.S., visiting places of worship, nonprofit organizations, schools and museums. In each location, they examined local histories of religious diversity and local understandings of religious difference and tolerance, as well as the range of democratic practices in each country.

“This program is unlike any other study abroad trip I’ve heard of,” said Burgess, a political science major. “You get to experience another culture but then you are also given the opportunity to see your own culture in a new light.”

She said spending two weeks in each country “really gives comparative studies a new meaning.”

Myers, a cultural anthropology major, said she appreciated the way the program allowed her to learn about Islam, a minority religion in the U.S. but the majority religion in Indonesia.

“From the time I spent living with Muslim students and the organizations we visited, I’ve gained a greater understanding of a stigmatized religion in the U.S.,” she said.

The two students were part of an educational exchange project developed by the U-M Center for Southeast Asian Studies in collaboration with Lehigh University and Universitas Gadjah Mada. The U-M is part of a 12-university group working with the Institute of International Education to spearhead that organization’s United States-Indonesia Partnership Project.

Universitas Gadjah Mada student Zafira Shabrina shows off her summer reading choice while attending the Fourth of July parade in Washington, D.C.

Six American universities and six Indonesian universities are working to develop cross-cultural and collaborative learning opportunities for their students and faculty. The program is a response to a long-term commitment between the two countries, signed in 2009, to broaden, deepen and elevate bilateral relations between the world’s second and third largest democracies. It includes $165 million in funding over a five-year period to support higher education collaboration. The Institute of International Education provided a grant to support the student trip.

Students traveled in Yogyakarta, a city in central Java, and then in southeastern Michigan, including Detroit, Dearborn and Ann Arbor. The students also visited Bethlehem, Pa., Philadelphia and New York City. The trip culminated at the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The students said highlights of the trip included spending the night at an Islamic boarding school in a rural area outside of Yogyakarta, where they got a sense of the rhythm of Islamic life: Eating dinner after sunset prayers and walking early to the call to prayer before dawn. The students also met with an interfaith activist in Yogyakarta who felt pulled in different directions by her mother’s Catholic family and her father’s Muslim family.

Upon their return to the U.S., they got to know a part of Detroit’s community by volunteering with Earthworks Urban Farm, run by the Capuchin Franciscans of St. Joseph. In New York, they learned about the challenges facing the U.S. Muslim community through a discussion with Daisy Khan, co-founder of Park 51, the controversial Islamic community center near the site of the former World Trade Center.

“Perhaps the activity that left the strongest impression on me was our visit to the Islamic boarding school in Indonesia. Despite differences in education and religion, we saw how kids in every culture have a lot of the same interests,” Burgess said.

The students said the real magic of the trip was the joint teaching and learning that took place among the students.

“One of the greatest aspects of the trip was being able to live and travel with the Indonesian students. It was a refreshing experience to see America through their eyes, and as a result, I gained a newfound appreciation for the society I live in,” Burgess said.

Bringing together Indonesian and American students gave students native guides for the entire trip, and they offered a wealth of knowledge and perspectives to each other through group discussions.

“Participating in this program has been an absolutely wonderful experience,” Myers added. “The new friends, memories and experiences I had in one month will stay with me forever. I would recommend this program to other U-M students for so many reasons, and I can’t wait to see what the program grows into in the future.”

By Kate Wright

Kate Wright is an academic affairs program manager at the U-M’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the International Institute. Read the trip blog at cseasindonesia2011.wordpress.com.

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