The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, July 09, 2012


Let kids leave and learn                                                                   

Is taking 20 students on a brief visit to an isolated Western nation going to make any difference to the quest for harmony?

At first glance the question seems too silly to consider.  While you read this story more of our fellow humans will have suffered in violent conflicts across the globe.  Only the most naïve Pollyanna would expect change just by boarding a Boeing.

Yet Mukhamad Nurochman (Nur) believes flying 8,000 kilometers worthwhile in the sense that every journey starts with a single step, while travel is both personal discovery and adventure.

For who knows what seeds might germinate when students’ fertile minds are exposed to the sunlight of differing ways of doing and thinking? Particularly so when those young people are likely to be influential in the future because they come from families able to afford the cost of Rp 24 million (US $2,700).

Nur, 42, has just completed his third trip overseas – and his second to New Zealand - leading Indonesian students from the Al Azhar Islamic Senior High School 1 in South Jakarta and accompanied by a female teacher, Wahyuni.  (The other program was to Taiwan with 15 students.)

The eight girls and 12 boys aged between 15 and 17 have just spent a fortnight at Wellington High School, a co-educational college with a no-uniform policy. 

Some found this liberating.  At home uniforms are compulsory and include headscarves.  Given their freedom overseas some preferred to let their hair down – metaphorically and practically.

“This had nothing to do with fear of mockery,” said Nur.  “This is a safe country where religion is a private matter.  There’s been no discrimination.

“This is a challenge for us.  We’d hope that they’d wear headscarves for the rest of their lives after leaving Al Azhar, but that’s up to them.”

When the cage is opened, who knows where the bird will fly?  This is the dilemma facing parents who send their children to schools seeking recognition under the Rintisan Sekolah Bertaraf Internasional (RSBI - International Standard School Program).

Apart from using English, RSBI also requires schools to develop links with Western schools – not always an easy task for an Islamic school.  Inevitably the hosts have cultures, practises and values different from Indonesia.

Rizky Aninditha, 16, said apart from improving her English she also wanted to discover what it was like living apart from her family

“I’ve made new friends and been able to spread Indonesian culture,” she said. In Wellington the girls performed the spectacular Saman dance of a thousand hands,(above) recognised last year by UNESCO as part of the world’s cultural heritage.
Added her friend Sabrina Nurul Hidayah, 16: “It’s been a happy experience.  People have been so kind. I’ve learned much about many things, including the confidence to approach others.”

Nur’s personal journey proves determination vaults hurdles. He grew up on the north coast of West Java near Cirebon, in tiny Kuduk Keras (‘hard rice’) where his father was a village official and father of eight.

Nur’s destiny could have been a sugar cane cutter or onion picker, standard jobs in the district. But the boy had ambitions beyond laboring  - he wanted to be a doctor to help people, but study costs crippled this noble goal.

Fortunately his parents mustered just enough money for five semesters at the State Teachers’ College in Yogyakarta.  Why? “Because it was the cheapest city,” he said.

“I was concerned with the gaps between the rich and poor. I want peace – I hate war. We don’t teach for money but to do good deeds. Then we are blessed.”

Nur, who is studying for a master’s degree on teaching English, started his tertiary education as a hick from the sticks.

“At first my grades were terrible, Cs and Ds,” he said.  “I had to master English and decided this required skill, not talent.  I studied almost 24 hours a day.  I read everything I could and watched Western films. I was active in student groups.”

He also met and guided young Australians studying Indonesian in the ancient Central Java city, contacts that benefited both sides.  To pay for the rest of his education he worked as a teacher.

After graduating he joined a small English school on Rp 300,000 (US $34) a month before moving to Al Azhar in Jakarta where his abilities were recognized.

In 2008 Nur spent five months in Georgia on the State Department’s International Leaders in Education Program for “outstanding secondary teachers.”  Later he wrote that in the US he learned values of “informality, openness and equality.”

His experience should have led to closer ties, but requests to build sister-school relationships with Indonesia were turned down.  Nur won’t speculate whether Islamophobia was the reason, but the US loss has been NZ’s gain.

At the high school the students spent the first hour every day in an English class together before being split up and assigned to standard classes.  They were taken on excursions and lived with host families briefed on their guests’ prayer responsibilities, preference for rice dishes and religious dietary needs.  Apparently these details caused no problems, with some families even seeking out a halal butcher.

“Abroad we experience different teaching systems,” Nur said.  “In Jakarta we have classes of up to 37, here it’s around 14 and the facilities are better.  The students study five subjects, not 14.  The teachers are more relaxed and the students obey.

“School exchange programs help broaden young minds, and that’s a teacher’s responsibility. Participants learn to be more independent and apply their learning in life.  I hope Kiwi students will be able to visit Al Azhar next January during NZ school holidays.

“If we can improve contacts and communication between people the world should be a more peaceful place. We have to help each other and pass our knowledge onto the next generation.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 July 2012)


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