Verdanica Desta and Kate Purcell
In February 2020, as smoke continued to linger from Australia’s devastating summer bushfires, His Excellency President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo addressed the Australian Parliament. Indonesian Army Corp Engineers and disaster management experts had been supporting Australia’s recovery efforts, and Jokowi reminded the Parliament that memories of Australia’s assistance in the aftermath of the 2004 Aceh tsunami had not faded. Just a month later, the world would begin to grapple with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most threatening global disruption in over a century. But at that time, during his address, Jokowi spoke of the close friendship between our nations, and proposed a new ‘AusIndo wave’: a movement of youth to bolster our ties for a shared future together.
Despite Australia and Indonesia’s dissimilarities of culture, politics, economy and language, our experience in the Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) 2020 demonstrated that developing deep friendships—even virtually and in the most challenging of times—is possible. Over two months, 18 Australians and 18 Indonesians got to know each other through numerous Zooms, chats, webinars and discussions, holding up Jokowi’s vision and building close friendships based on authentic curiosity and shared quality time.
We both came to the AIYEP program from different backgrounds. For Verdanica, I had always dreamed of going abroad. The AIYEP selection process was incredibly competitive, and after gruelling rounds of interviews, talent videos and dance performances, I was amazed to discover I was selected as the AIYEP 2020 delegate representing East Kalimantan Province. For Kate, from an Australian perspective, I too, had always longed to travel and connect internationally. AIYEP was an opportunity to build genuine people-to-people connections with Indonesians from across the archipelago, while learning deeply about myself at the same time. Neither of us expected this to be such a personally transformative learning experience.
Inter-country exchange, without the privilege of travel
Given the pandemic, AIYEP 2020 was always going to run a little differently to previous iterations. Social distancing and international immobility threatened to disrupt the immersive experience and bilateral interconnectedness AIYEP is renowned for. This gave the exchange a new hashtag, the #VirtualExperience, where we shared our lives on-screen for seven weeks. The fully digital program featured daily workshops, keeping us connected face-to-face. We independently completed the Global Competency Certificate, a seven-week training program covering modules that challenged our cultural assumptions, biases and intercultural learning patterns, and we undertook professional internships through organisations across Australia and Indonesia.
Each delegate had an Australian or Indonesian counterpart, with whom we shared our day-to-day lives throughout the program. In teams we were challenged through a business hackathon—an innovation design sprint to solve some of the most complex challenges in light of COVID-19— as well as a Social Impact Project addressing the Sustainable Development Goals. In the meantime, we maintained a busy social schedule and practised our language skills together over FaceTime, Zoom and by meeting each other’s family and friends.
We found that the virtual exchange experience had two core points of difference from a regular, in-country experience: the ‘part-time’ nature of the immersion, and a lack of tactile, ‘hands-on’ experiences. So, we found ourselves juggling the exchange program around our everyday lives: calling into group sessions from the office, from trams or cars, or in between submitting assignments. We brought the ‘tactile’ into the program by showing off our best tourist attractions, cultural dances, and even sharing Christmas celebrations with our counterparts’ friends and families over FaceTime and Zoom.
With many of us in lockdown throughout the program, we also could not hide from the everyday and the ‘mundane’: cooking meals together, sharing our living rooms and local streets, and the pressures of work and study. But it was in sharing these everyday and ‘mundane’ experiences that we were able to really get to know each other and to explore the hidden parts of each other’s cultures we otherwise might not have seen: the ‘strange’ products in supermarkets, the traffic on the streets or the scenes from someone’s backyard or kampung. While our exchange was less about place, the significant role of technology through our program actually enabled genuine relationships to flourish, as we got to know each other’s worlds in unexpected and surprising ways.
Communication is key
Yet, we also soon found that communicating online could be challenging, not only as we encountered typical technological challenges, but also in navigating intercultural and language barriers. The group was supported by the cultural awareness training and expertise provided by program providers, Value Learning. Effectively managing ideological or personal conflicts on-screen required careful communication and emotional intelligence. In writing this article, we both agreed that the most rewarding group sessions were on some of the most challenging topics: the role of religion in society, privilege and equity, cultural diversity. These conversations pushed our comfort zones even while sitting at a computer. It was the openness and respect forged during the program that allowed us to have these discussions together safely and confidently.
This was also reflected in the group’s pre- and post-program, Intercultural Effectiveness Scale results. The Scale uses six measures across three criteria: continuous learning, interpersonal engagement and resilience. Throughout the program, the group significantly grew our intercultural confidence and sensitivity across all dimensions. For example, the number of delegates scoring in the highest band for ‘self-awareness’ doubled after the program. More than 40 per cent improved by at least one point on the scale, and 20 per cent moved up three or more points. This compounded our experience, confirming the effectiveness of the virtual exchange program in building our overall intercultural competence.
In addition to the intercultural learning components of the program, the team from Value Learning—Marcela, Fran and Heidi—designed a professional development program as a core part of AIYEP 2020. Leveraging AIYEP’s strong alumni network and community, the program drew on a broad pool of senior Australia-Indonesia leaders, professional mentors, and respected host organisations for internships and mentorships. Internships were designed to cater to delegates’ respective academic and professional backgrounds and career ambitions.
Delegates from Indonesia had the additional obligation of communicating almost exclusively in English, which for most is not the daily language spoken at home. This challenged us to develop our capacity and self-confidence in English. We then worked in teams intensively to develop our professional skills and find solutions to some of the most systemic social issues through our Social Impact Projects. Each delegate offered their opinions and brainstormed ideas together as a team to come up with solutions to problems as far reaching as gender inclusion, poverty reduction, educational equity and climate change. This not only challenged our English language capacity, but also problem solving and intercultural teamwork in new contexts, fostering skills we can now bring along to new workplaces.
AIYEP has had a profound impact on both of us, and on the other delegates from 2020. As neighbours and long-term partners, Indonesia and Australia are well positioned to keep engaging and working together in the future. Our experience on AIYEP 2020 shows us that an ‘AusIndo youth wave’ can clearly strengthen the bilateral relationship, and that even in the midst of a global pandemic, young Australians and Indonesians can play an important role in building intercultural bridges. One of our key takeaways from AIYEP 2020 was a deep feeling of guyub – a sense of togetherness and community—and knowing that we are connected and part of something much bigger than ourselves.
AIYEP 2020 has been a testament to the value of youth mobility, and proof that building intercultural bridges can take place with great effect either in-country or in the virtual sphere. And while we all continue to share bowls of bakso and pasta together over Zoom for the moment, we are very much looking forward to the moment when we can book flights to actually meet each other in person, knowing that we have a solid network of friends and families in each other’s country, developed through months of friendship building and getting to know each other during these strange times.
Verdanica Desta (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recent graduate from Mulawarman University and aspiring public servant with a strong interest in Australia-Indonesia relations. Kate Purcell (email@example.com) is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Victorian Government and has experience working in foreign affairs and COVID-19 policy. Both were delegates in AIYEP 2020.
Applications are now open for AIYEP 2021: https://www.valuelearning.com.au/aiyep-application-form. AIYEP 2021 will run from 10 November to 29 December 2021, fully online. Applications close 20 September 2021.