Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Indonesia's Education System: How has it prepared me for a U.S. undergraduate education and beyond

As a high school student in Tangerang, one of Jakarta's satellite cities, I was expected to be unprepared for college. Many of my friends and relatives leave the country in their early- or mid-teens for educational purposes. Instead, I stayed in the same Catholic school for fourteen years, until I graduated in the summer of 2011. Generally speaking, it seems that many Indonesians, themselves, are rather uncertain of the quality of education that is available back home, whether it is in metropolitans or university towns or rural areas. Oftentimes, students would compensate any perceive lack in curriculum by taking after school lessons. Other times, we would actually use these tutor sessions to catch up on school work, which was pretty daunting, in retrospect. And yet, we scrape through national examination, whilst balancing college applications and preparation classes for the SATs, as well as other forms of university entrance exams. 

A few days ago, my econometrics class discussed about ways to evaluate education programs, particularly at Sarah Lawrence, a school that basically doesn't value quantitative assessment of student's work. We had a "conversation" about the variables, both input and output, that should be included, as well as the data collecting process. A Singaporean friend of mine joked that it would be particularly effortless to conduct such a study in her home country, which made me think about ways that my own country's government has evaluated its education system. 

But, before I got in over my head, I would stopped and thought about my own experience studying in Indonesia, a country that has been ranked to have the happiest students on earth. How has Santa Laurensia prepared me for college in the U.S.? 

One of the many coded messages I wrote during try outs for the final exam (UAN)

A private Catholic school with 'National-Plus' standard, Santa Laurensia provides about half of its classes in English and another half in Indonesian. However, students and teachers almost always speak in Indonesian. Seemingly, a majority of the students are from a Chinese-Indonesian background. Despite the school's religious nature, students' religious backgrounds vary. Unlike secular schools, we took classes on the Catholicism and attended monthly masses. The hours spent at school varied according to age group: kindergarteners were in from 7 AM - 11 AM; 1st and 2nd graders, 7 AM - 12 PM; 3rd - 6th graders, 7 AM - 2 PM; and junior high, as well as high school students were in from 7 AM - 3:30 PM on average. As we advanced, we took more classes. At most, I had fourteen classes in a year, most of which were mandatory. Similar to other schools in Indonesia, Santa Laurensia did not offer Advanced Placement (AP) or honors classes, which made it particularly daunting to apply to U.S. schools. Additionally, due to its National Plus standing, the school did not offer 'O' or 'A' levels, as well as an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. 

Despite the lack of facilities and options, how do many Santa Laurensia alums get accepted at prestigious universities all over the world? Now, I can only speak from personal experience, but I believe that it ranged between several focuses: 1) equally great amounts of tests and projects, 2) exposure and 3) it's National Plus program. The first two factors are particular to the school, while the last is determined by the government. 

1. Test and Projects. To be honest, I am the kind of student who thrives with projects, but lacks the concentration and boldness to take tests. And, attending Sarah Lawrence only proved my case. Unlike most schools in Indonesia, that I know of, Santa Laurensia is particularly heavy on projects, without compromising its value on exams. When I skim through my old agenda books, I can't believe that we had multiple tests daily, in addition to projects and assignments. 
           How did we survive? I guess, we got over the initial panic, adjusted and learned how to deal with all the pressure. The teachers with their pop quizzes and deadly exam problems, pushed us off the cliff over and over again. Surprise, surprise! I am glad they did. Having to take after school classes just to ensure a good grade did not sit with me well, but additional projects allowed me to even out my score and gain acceptance at several great universities in the U.S. 
           In high school, we reached the pinnacle of projects by taking a class called Projects, I know, I know, it sounds redundant, however it gave students the opportunity to conduct scientific and social scientific research. A research-focused school, Santa Laurensia students are known for their persistent standing in science competitions. However, personally, the class provided a strong foundation for the future research endeavors I eventually undertook in college. 
           Without sounding too corny, the alarming amount of work that we had to accomplish meant that most of us generated time management skills. Many also learned how to perform under pressure, which is always makes for a major plus point in college or at work. To be honest, experiencing so much at such a malleable stage in my life allowed me to get ahead at Sarah Lawrence. I appreciated 20-paged papers and tons of readings, whilst knowing that I would do more than fine on tests. If anything else, Santa Laurensia has provided me with the confidence to stand up and go up an even higher cliff to jump off of, in order to reach success. 


2. Exposure. Each year since fourth grade, my friends and I would go on overnight school trips. Before then, we attended day visits, instead. During my days, we would go to a science center in Ancol and slept on the parking lot; go on a "road trip" through parts of Java; stayed on a boat in Kalimantan; as well as experienced education systems in Singapore and Australia. The amount of exposure that we had was unheard of for a National Plus school. Granted, back then, Santa Laurensia attracted middle- to upper-middle-class families. 
           In addition to seeing new sights, going away with friends and teachers allowed for time to bond, gain independence from parents and the luxury of home. Once again, these programs showed us what we were made of, whether it was of grit or self-sufficiency. We learned to work in teams and live with our friends or host families. It was the perfect preparation to live on the other side of the globe. 
           More importantly, travel gave us an insight to all the possibilities that this world had to offer. Exposure opened our minds to foreign ideas and customs. An immersive experience provided a quick introduction to the local culture, be it within or outside of Indonesia. Personally, I became comfortable with traveling, in part, due to these trips, which helped us practice self-reliance and autonomy. 

3. National Plus Program. The Indonesian education system can be classified into three systems: 1) National, 2) National Plus, and 3) International. From my understanding, National Plus programs are very similar to National programs in the sense that students have to pass national examinations every few years and are eventually divided into Science (IPA) and Social (IPS) studies routes in eleventh grade. Both branches share similar basic subjects, such as civics studies, the sciences, social sciences, and so on. However, the former has to provide more classes in English and may use supplementary textbooks and teaching materials to fulfill this requirement. 
           Back home, schools that adopt the National Plus Program are known for its rigorous curriculum, as it takes on additional material and obligations. Compulsory lessons on Indonesian history pushed students to learn their own culture and heritage. Whilst, civics helped us understand the political situation that has preceded us. At times, the material inspired me to somehow push the country forward. At others, it prompted me to appreciate all the struggle that it took to reach Indonesia's current political state. Simply due to time and my own personality, I doubt that I would achieve these things if I were to study abroad. 

Indonesia's education system may not be at its prime. As a nation, we still have a pile of homework to accomplish in order to provide Indonesians with the education that they are eligible for. Continuous efforts should be made to sow the loopholes and diminish its weaknesses. However, simply based on my experience, I believe that the education that I have received in my country, whether it is inside or outside the classroom, has been invaluable in my success at Sarah Lawrence College and beyond. 

*Author owns rights to all the photos above

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