From Sydney to Semarang: Lessons learnt from schooling in Australia and Indonesia

Posted on February 28, 2018 By Ella Nugraha

In 1995, the author is likely to have made North Ryde Public School history by becoming the first Indonesian Year 2 student to have won a creative writing award.

Andrew Rosser’s recent report, Beyond access: Making Indonesia’s education system work’, prompted me to reflect on my own experience as a student in Indonesia, comparing it with my experience going to school in Australia.

Few Indonesians have had the opportunity to experience education in Indonesia and abroad. Even fewer still have experienced education in Indonesia and abroad both as a child and an adult. I happen to be one of these few people.

I first came to Australia in 1992 at the young age of four. Both of my parents had been granted scholarships to pursue higher education in Sydney, and it was in this city that I received my first education. I lived in Sydney with my family for five years and I think it is safe to say my childhood there was a very happy one. Despite my shyness, I excelled at academics. And while not being an avid reader, I was placed in the highest reading group level of my class. I enjoyed painting abstract pictures, looked forward to story time, and thrived at creative writing. I even enjoyed sports.

I returned to Indonesia in late 1996 just before my ninth birthday. Absolutely nothing in the world could have prepared me for the inevitable changes I was going to experience. The inability to speak Indonesian was the least of my struggles in school. I went through a period of what people have described as ‘reverse culture shock’.

The differences between the two educational systems could not have felt more like polar opposites. My abstract paintings were replaced with uniform pictures, story time replaced with memorising textbooks, and creative writing replaced with taking notes dictated by my teacher. Even sports was reduced to standing in straight lines, performing the same movements to the same music, every single week. I was swiftly introduced to the ranking system, where I was inevitably placed at the very bottom of the class for the first couple of years.

However, this is not to say that my Indonesian education did not have its benefits. For the last three years of my high school I was accepted into one of the best private Catholic schools in the province. This school was even more regimented than most in the country, but it was here that I first learned of the meaning of pluralism. It was also here that I was first introduced to the concept of social justice and, dare I say, feminism.

The beginnings of a lifelong relationship with Australia.


The students admitted each year came from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, from the poor to the ultra-wealthy. My school also ensured that no less than thirty percent of students identified with a religion other than Catholicism. And while I was part of the majority for being Catholic, I was a minority by ethnicity for being Javanese. The school did not attempt to ignore our differences but instead decided to point them out for us. It did so in a way that we would accept and embrace how different we all are. It ensured that, while we were within the school walls, we were treated equally regardless of faith, ethnicity and gender – values that have become increasingly urgent to teach within the last few years.

I continued to encounter different experiences within higher education as I completed a bachelor’s degree in Yogjakarta and a master’s degree in Melbourne. After nearly three decades of jumping from one system to the other, one can’t help but question: what is the purpose of education? The first thing that comes to mind is this Latin proverb.

Non scholae sed vitae discimus. We do not learn for school, but for life.

My dad taught me this proverb as a child. Maybe he was actually on to something. Idealistic, perhaps. But not wrong.

As an adult reflecting back on my childhood, I have become much more appreciative of each unique experience. Instead of seeing one system to be better or worse, I have come to the realisation that the two systems have been complementary. My primary education in Australia taught me the value of art and self-expression. The highly regimented Indonesian system prepared me for the hard work required to survive university abroad. My high school taught me the importance of equality and to be conscious of social injustices in all its shapes and forms. And both my Indonesian and Australian university experiences allowed me to shed uniformity and develop a world perspective based on my own individual ideas and critical thinking.

Indonesia today continues to strive for a better quality of education. I believe Indonesia still has a long way to go in creating a more balanced education system, where a student’s skills and potential is not assessed purely on academic grades. Where creativity is encouraged through art and literature, beyond textbooks. Where self-expression is not suppressed by a drive for uniformity.

Because you never know. A little girl who just wants to make abstract paintings might have something to offer.


Ella Nugraha

Ella Nugraha

Engagement Officer

The Australia-Indonesia Centre