On a recent trip to Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, I met a survivor of the 2010 Mount Merapi volcanic eruption, which killed more than 350 people and forced 350,000 to evacuate their homes. The man told us how he was forced to rebuild his life in a land devastated by lava and ash.
Several weeks later, Cut Nury Hikmah Sabry and Soulaya Lestary, two students from the University of Indonesia, visited the Boys and Girls Club in Bethlehem and taught the children a traditional dance from Aceh, a region of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
These experiences and others like them brought two countries separated by geographic distances, cultural differences, and historical narratives closer together.
They were made possible by the United States Indonesia Partnership Program (USIPP), through which eight students from Lehigh, the University of Indonesia (UI), and Gadjah Mada University (UGM) spent four weeks exploring religious pluralism, democratic societies and multiculturalism in Indonesia and the U.S.
The students included Shannon Cassidy ’15, Ellie McGuire ’14, Theresa Mejia ’14 and me (Angela Farren ’13) from Lehigh; Cut Nury Hikmah Sabry and Soulaya Loustary from UI; and Cindhi Cintokowati and Anggita Paramesti from UGM.
We were accompanied by Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain and professor of religion studies at Lehigh; Rio Rini Moehkardi, head of the office of international affairs at UGM; and Puspita Asmara, lecturer in American studies and English language studies at UI.
The world’s fourth-largest nation emerges
With 240 million citizens, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation. It has one of the strongest economies in Southeast Asia and is home to the world’s largest Muslim population and to smaller numbers of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and followers of other religions.
President Obama implemented the United States-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, which includes a commitment to improving Indonesia’s system of higher education. USIPP represents a bilateral initiative created to help achieve this goal.
The concept for the program was developed by Mohamed El-Aasser, vice president of international affairs, during a trip to Indonesia. El-Aasser asked three faculty members to construct the program’s curriculum: Steffen; Jack Lule, director of the Globalization and Social Change Initiative and professor of journalism and communication; and Rick Matthews, department chair and professor of political science; and Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain and professor of religion studies.
The three chose the theme of religious pluralism and democracy.
“Here we find two societies quite different from one another yet each struggling with the meaning of democracy in light of challenges put to it by religions,” said Steffen.
For four weeks, we visited religious sites, historical monuments and cultural landmarks. We met with government officials, directors of nongovernmental organizations and presidents of schools.
Disagreeing while respecting differences
While exploring each country’s political and religious culture, we often found ourselves engaged in controversial discussions. Even when tempers soared and emotions flared, these conversations allowed us to overcome cultural barriers, correct misconceptions, and reach mutual understandings.
McGuire admitted finding a balance between engaging in honest dialogue while being diplomatic was not easy. From this, she learned “that it is completely normal to not agree with everything from a foreign culture, but in order to grow from the experience, it is necessary to have open conversations and respect other people, despite any differences.”
Being sensitive to cultural differences was also a struggle for Sabry.
“Small things, like the way we use the bathroom, how we eat, and the way we speak, are very different,” she said. “Those small details were actually a big deal, but we had to cope with them and that’s how we learned to appreciate each other.”
Cultural immersion makes the USIPP different from a traditional study abroad program.
“The structure of the USIPP program put students outside their cultural comfort zones,” said Lule. “They were living 24/7 with people of another culture and culture shapes everything, from food to dress to humor to music. Experiencing this can be quite jarring, but that is where the most learning occurs.”
“This program pushed my limits and even made me question my identity and my ability to be understanding, tolerant, patient and open-minded about other cultures and people,” said Mejia.
Cintokowati said the challenges helped her grow as an individual.
“USIPP transformed my apathy into curiosity and helped me go from being ignorant to aware,” she said.
The USIPP Summer Program stirred debates about today’s ideological battle between democratic societies and Islamic extremists. It provoked questions about the meaning of religious tolerance.
It also carried us to the top of Borobudur, the greatest Buddhist monument in the world, and down into the cage of a Komodo Dragon, sometimes called the last living dinosaur. Every adventure presented a new opportunity to challenge each other, question our own beliefs, break past our preconceived notions, and develop a global perspective.
Photos by Jennifer Topp