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'Get a Ticket': Varvara Gurko on Her Exchange Studies in Indonesia

Varvara Gurko is a fourth-year student of the Bachelor's programme 'Philology'. This year, under the international academic mobility programme, she went to Indonesia where she spent a semester at the Universitas Indonesia. Find out which course was the most memorable for Varvara, how she was studying Indonesian in Indonesian and what places she managed to visit in the interview.

'Get a Ticket': Varvara Gurko on Her Exchange Studies in Indonesia

Photo courtesy of Varvara Gurko

How you chose the university

Going on a mobility programme had been my dream from the first year of studies but it didn't happen straight away—only in the fourth year, I went to the Universitas Indonesia. Not all the universities from the list for academic mobility offered programmes in philology. But there was one at the Indonesian university!

The decision to go to this particular country was pretty intuitive—I wanted to live in a culture which would be far from the one I was used to. Of course, when I told my friends that I was going to Indonesia, everyone started talking about Bali right away. But for me, the famous resort wasn't the main reason but the meeting with a new country definitely was!

Indeed, when I got back home, I felt the difference between the two cultures. In Indonesia, it is sunny all year round, and this fact plays its own role—people are more open and cheerful there. It is not always like this here.

How the educational process changed

In the third year of 'Philology', I chose the linguistics track, so I hardly studied any literary courses. However, here, I was in the programme without such a division—'English Studies'. I was the only international student, so I felt Indonesian hospitality to the full extent—both professors and students paid a lot of attention to me and often offered help.

During the semester, I studied three subjects: 'Literary Critic', 'Public Speaking' and 'Semantics of the English Language'. As a bonus, I took up a course on the Indonesian language—as a linguist, I was interested in how the colonial era influenced it. Later, I learnt that in fact, I could choose any language. For philologists, it is very convenient—you could sign up for a French or German course and get enough points for it before coming back home.  

All the courses were taught in English, and it wasn't that hard in general—I know the language quite well. Even some of my coursemates were not so fluent in it. The studies of the Indonesian language were a little funny: they promised us that they would teach us in Indonesian straight away as it was in the first year with the German language. I was stressed at first but my professor was very nice and explained the material to me in English as well, so there were no difficulties.

The most interesting for me was the course on public speaking where they taught us to structure our speech and hold webinars as it is especially topical in the era of online meetings. As a final assignment of the course, we had to prepare a speech on any topic—mine was devoted to mental health. Before the presentation, we were grouped according to the lists, and as the Indonesians do not have surnames, I had to be the first. To be honest, it was a little heart-pounding—other students, as compared to me, spent two semesters studying this course. But after all, I received valuable advice for the future—not only from the professor but also students themselves.

The course on the semantics of the English language was also useful as I learnt to build lexical fields—schemes which allow us to track the connections between the main word and its synonyms, antonyms and hyponyms. They come in handy, for example, for analysing texts and creating dictionaries.

I was very surprised by how the Universitas Indonesia organised the educational process. The first thing to catch my eye was the non-standardised timetable. The official duration of double classes is two and a half hours but often, it is defined by professors themselves. For instance, the classes in the semantics of the English language lasted for only an hour and a half. And my friends from the psychology course told me that sometimes, their classes lasted for four hours. Plus, there were no breaks between the classes—it often happened that a double class ended, and the next one started right away.

As for the active participation in seminars, the Indonesian university has a very unusual approach to it. If at HSE University, students answer voluntarily, here, they ask everyone. I asked my coursemate why they did it—it turned out that here, they closely kept track of attendance. If a student skips three times in a semester, they won't pass this course.

What you like about the foreign university

I really liked that the university was located on one big campus—the territory was so big that one could roam about it for hours. In fact, each side here is a mini city with its own libraries, conference halls and cafes. My faculty alone occupied ten buildings.

Around the business faculty, there is a beautiful park with a fountain and benches. There, students ride bikes and scooters which one can rent on the whole campus. But the most beautiful and impressive for me was the main building where the International Office is located. High ceiling, Indonesian coat of arms all over the wall, renovated interiors of the 19th century—all these things look amazing!

Student life at the Indonesian university is very striking and rich. There are regularly various events: international fairs with representatives of various cultures, fashion shows, Chinese theatre, sports days—this is only a small part of what students organise. To be honest, I wasn’t actively involved in the extracurricular life—I was more interested in trips, many of which were organised by the university for us for free. I will tell you in detail about one of them.

I still remember the trip to Bandung, a small town near Jakarta which is famous for its tea plantations. The university fully paid for the trip. The day started with the local citizens showing us a play with wayangs—traditional dolls on sticks. Then, they taught us to play the traditional instrument angklung made of bamboo tubes: one has to shake them to get a sound. They showed us how to get various notes after which we played a song together.

We also managed to walk around: went to hot springs and visited the natural sight of Kawah Putih—a lake formed in one of the craters of the extinct volcano Patuha. The water in it is characterised by high acidity because of a high amount of sulfuric acid. That is why the landscape around the lake burnt out and the trees grew black, being there for more than 15 minutes is dangerous to the health. But bright blue water and unusual landscape attract a lot of tourists!

We got assistance in adapting to the new country from buddies. Every group had three of them, plus each student had a personal buddy. They took great care of us: my buddy texted me a month before the mobility programme, helped with packing and, in general, often talked to me to get to know each other better. Then, they met us at the airport and drove to the campus by cars provided by the university—it was very pleasant!

Besides, it was great that the university tried to introduce us to the local culture in all the possible ways. For instance, they organised a big programme on Indonesia's Independence Day for international students. People here start preparing for the festival in advance: long before it, there were people in the streets wearing pins with the sign 'I love Indonesia'. At the event, we were told about the meaning of the festival and then had something like a school sports day. At first, I was surprised but then, I found out that local citizens often organise sports competitions in honour of the festival. In the centre of Jakarta, there was a parade. We also visited it and watched how local citizens in national costumes played traditional instruments.

How your daily life is organised

The university offers international students three accommodation options to choose from. I didn't find a place for me straight away: firstly, I settled in a residential estate which I didn't like. Then, I moved into another building—a studio apartment with a bathroom, a kitchen and a small balcony. I liked the location of this place: the campus was a 15-minute walk away. The only confusing thing was the proximity of the railway but I got used to it with time.

As for food, I usually cooked breakfast myself—it was simply a habit. But it was much more beneficial to order lunches and dinners in a cafe or a campus canteen which is located in every faculty building. If you compare it to food shopping, the price turns out to be the same. In addition, there were no grocery stores next to my house, only snack stalls. The nearest supermarket was 20 minutes walk away, not everyone can do it in the heat of 35 degrees.

By the way, the climate is very hot, you can't walk in the street for a long time. That is why Jakarta is full of various shopping malls where locals spend their free time, hiding from the scorching sun under air conditioners. In addition, there are almost no sidewalks in the city as people mostly use bikes and rarely walk. 

Three things that surprised you in the new country

Unhurried lifestyle

I was very surprised by the lifestyle of the locals. They never rush and do everything slowly, savouring every moment. It is immediately evident that the sun is shining for them all year round and they simply enjoy their life. You can see it in everything: the locals walk slowly and do everything at the last moment because they are sure: 'all in good time'. Together with other international students, we even started a joke: 'It starts at 10 a.m. Indonesian time'. That means that if an event is to start at 10, you can easily come at 10:30 and still be among the first guests. With HSE’s constant deadlines, I was used to life at a fast pace, and at first, I got annoyed all the time but later, of course, I got used to it and even learnt to find more time for my own things.

Motorcycles and bikes are the main means of transport

It was my first time in a country where everyone rides bikes and motorcycles. Taxi and food delivery services also use bikes. It seems like people spend their whole life on them. I have seen many times how drivers lined up and relaxed or had lunch, staying in their seats. This need is related to the fact that in Jakarta, there are crazy traffic jams: once, we spent two hours in a car instead of forty minutes. Of course, it is easier to manoeuvre on a bike.

Cats are everywhere

In Jakarta, there are lots of cats, they are literally everywhere: they live in libraries and join double classes—students are very glad to have such neighbours! Of course, you never have lunch in the canteen without a cat lying next to you on a bench.

Photo courtesy of Varvara Gurko

Three things one has to do during a trip

Try kwetiau

In Indonesia, I found my new favourite dish! It's kwetiau—a traditional soup with thick noodles. I was lucky because the tastiest one was cooked right across the road from my house, at a cafe called 'Mie Ayam Berkat'. The atmosphere there is awesome as well—it's a family cafe where parents and their children work together. I'll share a lifehack with you: add some sweet soy sauce to the soup—then, you'll definitely understand why it is the best dish ever! I really miss it in St Petersburg.

Visit Bali and Vietnam

If you dream of going to Bali, I recommend you to visit Uluwatu, a quiet, really small town. It is hard to find an ATM there, and the majority of accommodation is on the cliffs; if you go down to a beach, there is no cellular service. But this is the advantage of it: there are almost no tourists and hustle. It is an amazing opportunity to be left alone with beautiful nature!

You can buy cheap tickets from Jakarta to Vietnam. There, I recommend you visit Hạ Long—a bay of the Gulf of Tonkin of the South China Sea with emerald water and rocks peeking out of the water. It's one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen!

Visit the National Independence Monument

In Jakarta, there is the Independence Monument, inside of which you can find a museum where 50 composite pictures about the main centuries of Indonesian history are displayed. At the bottom of the monument, there are recreated pictures devoted to the way the country gained independence after being a colony of the Netherlands. I think this place is worth visiting to understand the history and culture of the country better. If you are lucky, you can buy a ticket to the viewing platform at the top of the monument. It is better to come here in the morning on a weekday.  

Photo courtesy of Varvara Gurko

What the exchange programme gave you

Thanks to the exchange programme, I realised that I am capable of much more than I had thought. It happened that in Indonesia, there were no Russian-speaking students at all, which is why I had to deal with complex issues myself, in addition, in a foreign language. Outside the university, people hardly spoke English, and I had to use a translator often. But the knowledge gained in the course on the Indonesian language also came in handy: I fluently communicated in shops and cafes.

This experience also helped me to overcome the language barrier and meet wonderful people. It seems to me that I even caught some habits from the locals: I also became slower. I was used to the fact that everything went quickly in Russia but now, I try not to rush anywhere.

What you dream of now

My main aspiration is to travel more and see how people live in different countries. I hadn't travelled much before, and Indonesia became a great experience for me. I really want to come back here and see other corners of this beautiful country! I would go to the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Lombok. They offer three-day tours to Lombok on boats which include visits to other islands as well. I am not a great fan of water transport but it is interesting to try it anyway.

Students can choose an international academic mobility programme, ask questions and get informational support on the website of the International Student Mobility Office