Tara McCoy Study Abroad: A Transformative and Humbling Experience

Honors Students away from campus for study abroad, co-ops, or internships are encouraged to write about their experiences to share them with the Honors community. In the post below, junior public health student Tara McCoy ’20 from Rockwall, TX shares her experiences as a Boren Scholar in Indonesia last fall.

– by Tara McCoy

Tara McCoy ’20 at Mount Bromo, Jawa Timur – the most epic sunrise in the world (don’t fact check me on that)

I don’t know what I expected from an intensive language learning course in Indonesia, but I don’t think I ever expected to fall in love with both the country and the language to the extent I did. Indonesia is a country which consists of around 17,000 islands in Southeast Asia. For reference, it is located north of Australia and southeast of India and is an almost 24-hour plane ride from the United States (talk about some killer jet lag). While my primary purpose in Indonesia is to study Bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language), language acquisition is often accompanied by cultural understanding/awareness. My study in Indonesia, while exhausting, has not only introduced me to a culture very different from that of the US, but has also changed the way I interact with others and carry myself.

Before I get into my experience in Indonesia, I want to give a bit of a background about myself. I am a public health major with an anthropology minor, and I am studying in Indonesia as a Boren scholar. The Boren scholarship is given out to university students to encourage and fund the study of critical languages. One of those critical languages is Indonesian. I have never been someone who has been 100% sure about their plans for the future, so when I heard about Boren, a program which encourages language acquisition and cultural learning, I jumped at the opportunity. I have always been interested in global health and the relationship between culture and a society’s health, so an opportunity which would allow me to experience a new culture whilst learning the language sounded perfect.

Class in Malang, Jawa Timur – a discussion about agriculture turns into a comment on fashion.

As I said before, Indonesia is made up of 17,000 islands (not all of which are inhabited), so you can imagine the cultural diversity that exists here. So far I have lived in Indonesia for a little over 5 months, and during that time have lived in Malang (East Java), Samosir Island and Medan (Northern Sumatra), and Yogyakarta (Eastern Java). While the character of each area has been a little different (different local foods, different slang), the underlying “Indonesian” attitude remains the same. I feel silly using “Indonesian attitude” because obviously not every Indonesian is the same or embodies the attitude I’m going to describe. However, whether I have been sitting at a warung (small place to eat) in Malang, picking vegetables on Samosir island, or grabbing a coffee in Medan, I have been greeted with a friendliness, kindness, and hospitality that can only be described as distinctly Indonesian. While I have by no means been to every country on the map, I cannot fathom the existence of another nation’s people having the same willingness to help strangers as Indonesians. Just to give an example, a woman I barely knew (who only knew me because I was friends with her friend’s aunt) gave me a free bed to stay in and cooked meals for me.

The lovely women I interviewed for my final project on the relationship between Javanese culture and healthcare treatment for elderly women.

While language learning is an extremely long, frustrating, and arduous process, the process itself teaches humility, patience, and respect. To be put in a position where you can barely order a coffee or have to rely on another person to handle the purchase of your SIM card requires a strength I was not expecting to need. In addition, you learn the valuable skill of being able to laugh at yourself. When you’ve been accidentally saying “alisan” (eyebrow) when you meant to say “alasan” (reason), you can’t do anything else but crack a joke at your own expense. One of the greatest things about studying abroad is not only the opportunity to observe and experience other cultures, but also the opportunity to learn from other cultures and incorporate some of what you learn into the way you live. For example, from Indonesia you learn a hospitality and selflessness which anyone could benefit from. When you put language learning into the mix, you also gain a bit of confidence and humility that goes a long way, both in personal and business relationships. While you learn a lot in the classroom while studying abroad, I would argue the people you meet, the relationships you form, and the experiences you have interacting with a different culture teach you so much more.

Learning to harvest ginger and other herbs at a farm in Northern Sumatra
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