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Sampoerna Foundation’s Access America Fair Connects American Universities and Indonesian students April 15, 2011

Posted by Sharehouse Jakarta in Uncategorized.
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Whoa! The US is seriously gearing up to promote education in Indonesia. That’s what the local newspapers have said about the Access America education fair at Sampoerna Strategic Square in Jakarta last week. More than 75 American universities were represented.

Visitors at the free event — most of whom were shopping for a degree at the undergraduate or S1 level – quickly realized that this was the best opportunity they had ever seen for learning about US education trends and opportunities without leaving Indonesia. Even language wasn’t a barrier since each American university delegation was accompanied by bilingual interpreters from the Sampoerna School of Education. In addition to being able to speak with a wide range of American education professionals –from international student coordinators to university deans – talks were also held on how to apply for a visa, how to apply to law school and a wide range of other topics.

The reason that the quality of the event impressed Indonesian journalists is that for decades, as numbers of Indonesians enrolled in higher education in the US has declined, the US Embassy in Jakarta and other official channels for promoting American culture appeared to be been stuck in neutral.

Meanwhile Indonesians are spoiled for choice when it comes to education. First because Indonesian universities are getting better without becoming significantly more expensive.  Next, because some of the best universities in the world are located in nearby Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. And what’s left over – extremely popular study destinations like Australia and Europe –  easily attract Indonesians by competing on quality, cost and long-standing culture, sports, entertainment and business ties. That’s why, after so many years of disappointing numbers, people began to wonder if the US really cared about involving Indonesians in the exciting world of education USA.

My experience working as an education attaché at the US Embassy in Malaysia about 10 years ago was that all the best Malaysian universities already had a wide range of partnerships and exchange programs already in place with universities in Australia and the UK. “Of course, our students and professors would like to study in the US,” they would tell me. “But it’s difficult.  There’s not enough information. There’s no guarantee.” Today I hear the same thing at universities in Indonesia. The fact is, unlike the British Council and the Australian national foreign student recruitment machine and others, the Americans really did  assume that the benefits of a US education would sell themselves. Not in Indonesia.

Now, hopes for closer Indonesian-American relations in the field of education have risen, on the back of a agreement between US President Obama (who studied in Indonesian) and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang (who studied in the United States) for a “comprehensive partnership” (kemitraan komprehensif) which specifically covers education and provides money and a general strategy but not many details.

But the Access event on 3-4 April — attended by US Ambassador Scot Marciel — proves that third parties like the Sampoerna Foundation have an important role to play in the hoped-for turnaround. Having accumulated too many fortunes to spend in a lifetime, Putra Sampoerna  — another famous US-schooled Indonesian – oversaw the sale of his family’s tobacco empire to Phillip Morris and moved directly into education.

Now it seems the vision and resources of the Sampoerna Foundation are themselves sufficient to affect education trends in the world’s fourth largest country, although we’ll have to wait to see the results. Without too much to offer visitors in terms of refreshments or entertainment, visitors at the Foundation’s palatial offices in the center of the banking district were dancing with energy from early morning until the last of the brochures were packed up around 6:30 PM.

The event was co-sponsored by the US Commercial Service, a unit of the US Mission to Indonesia which operates independently from the Embassy. The of USCS suggests that the US — like Australia and other countries — are amenable to viewing education as an export and Indonesia as an important market.

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