Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Embarking on the SIT Indonesia Program

After I had been accepted into the program, I began planning and preparing as much as possible for the semester ahead of me. While I couldn’t exactly anticipate my future experiences, I could try to make future life a little easier for myself, especially considering the number of changes in my access to wi-fi and supermarket-esque services. With that being said, listed below are five things I wish I knew to begin doing during the summer before my semester abroad.

1. Start learning Bahasa Indonesia.

Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of Indonesia, and it is incredibly important to know because there are a great number of Indonesians who do not speak English. Thus, knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia is key to communicating with them, and if you spend your ISP in an area where no one speaks English, then proficient language skills are key to survival.

I and a few other students used Duolingo during the summer before the semester, and in my opinion, even just learning the basics will give you a huge advantage when you actually begin to learn during the semester abroad. I noticed many of the students who professed that they didn’t used Duolingo beforehand struggled to retain basic vocab and grammar as opposed to those who’d started early.

By getting a head start, you can start focusing on developing more complex Bahasa Indonesia faster, which will better prepare you for the excursions and homestay experiences.

2. The packing list is misleading.

Perhaps one of my greatest pet peeves was the packing list. I followed it exactly, but I shouldn’t have. Admittedly, it is quite tricky to narrow down exactly what you will need because the program changes slightly with each semester, but let me share with you what I did and did not need to bring with me to Indonesia that the packing list did not cover.

It is wise to bring enough long sleeves/pants/skirts to stretch out over a week. We spent a full week in East Java and could only wear items that covered our elbows and knees modestly. I was certainly not prepared, and as such, I needed to buy long-sleeved shirts in Indonesia before embarking to East Java. Furthermore, I chose to conduct my ISP in a more conservative area, and also needed similarly modest clothing for a month to respect the local culture.

The packing list also warns against bringing too many casual clothes and instead requests that the bulk of your clothes be formal. While you should certainly bring clothes that extend past the knees and that cover your shoulders, they do not need to be formal in the business sense of style. In fact, such clothing is likely to get ruined very quickly by sweat and stains.

Thirdly, you must bring a pair of pants or shorts with a shirt that you do not mind getting dirty or ruining utterly. There is a section of the program during which you will likely be caked in mud that is supposed to stain your clothes irreparably. With that being said, it is rare to come across a washing machine or dryer. Therefore, whatever clothing you bring, they should preferably be resistant to stains, will not bleed color easily, and can feasibly be washed in cold water and air-dried by hand.

The biggest lie of all on the packing list is the request that you bring notebooks. SIT Indonesia provides you a notebook for each subject along with a pen, so you should only bring along notebooks as extras or for some other non-SIT writing activity you plan to do. Other office supplies are also not necessary unless you think you need really them. Flashcards in particular were especially useful to me, but I could not find more for sale in Indonesia: So stock up on what you think you need.

3. In terms of hands-on experience, this program is very good at what it does, but it is shaky in preparing its students for the academic work it expects of them.

I advise to be constantly looking ahead at the schedule, even weeks in advance, because the program leaders will likely inform you of events and assignments at the very last moment before they are due. This isn’t unlike Whitman College at times, but there is rarely sufficient time to complete the SIT assignments comfortably before they are due. The general schedule is often so hectic that I had to steal little moments here and there to complete the required assignments.

Additionally, there is very little structure set in place to slowly prepare students for the type of work it expects, work which is mostly geared towards anthropology. I advise that you try to get familiar with anthropological methods of study, terminology, principles, and test-taking methods. If you are not already familiar, then perhaps ask some anthropology majors or professors what their experiences are, and I’m sure that they would be happy to help you gain some ground.

4. One piece of advice given constantly by the program director is to “lower your expectations.”

I must say that mindset is the single most useful view to adopt if you want to enjoy every bit of your experience abroad. Because this program—and life itself—often throws unexpected situations at its students, lowering your own anticipations can help open your mind to new and unexpected experiences.

Be careful about researching Indonesia too much before leaving, because that information may fuel certain expectations that will not be fulfilled during your time abroad. While I certainly believe that researching Indonesia’s political climate and broad facts about the nation can be useful to you, delving too deeply into specifics—such as specific places, subjects, or religions of Indonesia—may inadvertently build expectations that this program cannot fulfill.

5. You must save up for this trip. You will be paying for some basic needs out of pocket.

Let me preface this point by saying that of course you’ll have to spend your own pocket money for personal shopping and maybe to buy souvenirs. The program is not, and should not, be responsible for those expenses. However, there are some basic needs that the program advertises itself as able to fully cover, but I have found that not to be the case.

Before the ISP period, you are given regular allowances for the weekend (specifically for meals on your own time), but that amount will cover the bare minimum. It is not the worst situation you could be in, but I don’t believe those allowances fully cover basic food expenses. They mostly cover them, because many of the restaurants in Bali are priced a little high due to its great tourist population. We spend most of the semester in Bali, and therefore, it is difficult to locate cheap but sufficient places to eat.

It is during ISP that money seems to become a real problem. During my semester, the ISP stipend of 5.7 million rupiah (approximately $400) was generally enough to pay for either cheap living space or all transportation (planes and taxis, etc) alone. If the stipend went towards one of these expenses, it could not feasibly cover the other entirely, nor does it account for other expenses such as food, translator services, courtesy gifts for interviewees, and all other potential costs. These estimates also do not factor in money deducted for hospital services of which other students had unfortunately needed to use before the ISP period.

This predicament is quite unfortunate because if you want to study something outside of Bali, you will have to pay for a plane ticket. Because of safety standards, the program allows you to ride only certain airlines—which tend to lean towards the more expensive. That leaves housing and all other costs under the responsibility of your personal wallet. On the other hand, if you study in Bali, it is difficult to find cheap housing because of its high tourist population and those accordingly scaled costs of living. Thus, housing takes up the stipend and leaves other costs up to your wallet.

Therefore, I suggest you save up for the semester abroad perhaps $300 dollars for the ISP period alone. Roughly $400 will go towards living and extra transportation in the area—which will likely be paid for by the stipend—$150 dollars for potential flights to and from your area of study, maybe $100 for the month’s food if you cook for yourself, and $50 for extra expenses. This number does not account for any extra money that you may spend before or after the ISP period. It also does not account for any unexpected expenses that may crop up during the ISP period.


Although I’ve ended on a bit of a dark note, the SIT Indonesia program will offer you experiences that you could not locate in America or even if you were to visit Indonesia on your own time. The people that you’ll meet and the activities you’ll perform leave a lasting impression. That makes all of the expenses and the strifes, in my opinion, certainly worth it.

Final Days: Return to America and Post-Semester Transitions

The semester came to an end very quickly, but it did feel like an end to me. I successfully returned to Bali, travel-worn but ready to tackle the last few pages of my incomplete draft; and after the blur of days featuring final presentations on our ISPs, the very last few days of the program were blissfully devoid of immediate academic responsibility. We spent those days simply enjoying each other’s company. For me, it was a lovely, cathartic end and a great way to kickstart my transition from Indonesian life to American life.

Lembongan Beach

It was during those last few days of my Independent Study Project (ISP) in Jakarta that it really dawned upon me that I would be returning to America in a very short span of time. Although I hadn’t exactly gotten completely accustomed to living in Indonesia by then, I felt anticipation that my world was about to change dramatically—but this time in reverse. I couldn’t clearly anticipate what reverse culture shocks would hit me, but I anticipated culture shocks nonetheless.

While in Indonesia I had developed characteristics that I had somewhat expected to lose once back in America. The language Bahasa Indonesia for one; but I worried most that I would lose my newfound self-confidence to navigate unfamiliar situations. On the other hand, I was both excited and trepidatious over what new skills or ticks I would retain after returning to America. I was curious: How different was I truly from pre-program Eli?

I returned to America as the winter season begins. In my case, I returned to a cold, grey, and foggy homescape that was made all the more dramatic by the size of everything. Everything seemed wide and open, giving me the impression that they were spaces that could be filled but weren’t. Everything seemed unnecessarily large.

Picnic Sack Race in Bali

As I am with this landscape, I am still in the process of configuring myself. I spent a whole semester being forced by new circumstances to self-examine, but I am not done, yet. I am still trying to pinpoint the new habits and perspectives that I have absorbed and carried within me to America. Size is the only example so far that I have been able to clearly recognize. Otherwise, I have not yet experienced any dramatic reverse culture shocks.

During the last few weeks of the SIT Program, I amused myself by wondering and worrying about the reverse culture shocks that I would have to face and navigate upon my return. Thus, it is to my great surprise and confusion that, other than the great big openness of America, I have not yet experienced any differences that lead to “shock.” Forgive me if I speak too soon, but I feel that I have reacclimated quite smoothly. Does that mean that I have not changed at all?

I would say no. Certain habits of mine that I held previous to my semester abroad are noticeably gone, and in their place, I utilize new habits that I formed in Indonesia. Although, I find that the whole transition for me from Indonesia to America has not been very exciting. Yes, I feel that I am different than before studying abroad, but I don’t feel like an entirely new person. I am still the same person with the same personality but with some tweaks.

I suppose if I were to try and spin some greater wisdom from my experience, I would both comfort and temper those who expect great grand changes to result from living in another country. For those who are worried that they won’t recognize themselves after their experience, well, don’t worry about it. In my case, I am still myself, despite the developments that I have gained along the way. And to those who are concerned that they won’t change in any way, well, depending on where you go and what you study, I believe that it’s highly unlikely that you won’t experience some shift in yourself. It’s just that those shifts may be more subtle than you realize.

Thank you, and until next time!

Climax of the Semester: A Field Study and the Benefit of Breaks

My primary reason for applying to a SIT program was the promise that I would have the opportunity to conduct a field study for my Independent Study Project (ISP). While the SIT Indonesia program also offered opportunity to pursue other major projects, I stuck fast to my original want. I had never conducted a field study before and likely never will at Whitman because my major and my own interests simply do not support doing a field study.

I and the other students were allotted a month to conduct our projects, and during that month I learned more than I could have ever prepared for. In all honesty I entered this project fairly confident in my abilities. With my skills in English writing and reading, as well as my lack of nerves, I felt endowed to tackle the research and the writing periods. For the most part, in hindsight, my skills did not fail me. What I did not expect were the difficulties with time management.

My Apartment in Jakarta

A month is not very long. On paper, us students are allotted perhaps three to four weeks to conduct research, then the last week is spent writing the paper draft. I have always known myself to take a long time to both write and research, so I planned to begin writing half a week in advance and to have finished all of my external source research beforehand. Yet, the amount of evidence that I amassed and the time that it took to both outline and draft far overshot a month’s limit. Perhaps what truly trapped me was the endless number of external sources to examine. Technically I could have started that research before I even embarked upon my ISP and perhaps still wouldn’t have exhausted my research.

And I should have begun research much earlier. It would have saved me much time, energy, and sanity. Due to my lack of proactivity, for the last two weeks I spent hunkered down in an apartment in Jakarta working nonstop on my ISP. Needless to say, I went quite stir-crazy. Out of necessity I took two days off to counteract the numerous hours that I spent on the project.

Night Bus to Bali

Ferry to Bali








One of the benefits of conducting this ISP alone were the opportunities to take true breaks. During them, I could self-reflect and take advantage of these private moments to recollect myself. There was great value in simply spending time alone, especially during the few times I went out and ate at restaurants. I am not one to whip out my phone to find entertainment while at a restaurant. Thus, I spent my time reflecting upon myself, my experiences, the ISP project, and on my future. Even better, sometimes I thought nothing at all. It was great quiet time away from the apartment. Afterwards, I was better prepared to reenter the fray of research and drafting. Considering my short schedule, it might have been unwise of me to take that time off, but it did wonders for my peace of mind.

My ISP Presentation

I would love to say that I finished my ISP paper on time. However, even a full week and a half of work was not enough time for me to finish it. I was lucky that I rode a night bus to return to Bali and had a long stretch of time to work on the paper. That trip totaled around twenty-one hours, and I probably spent eleven of those hours dutifully typing away at my poor computer. When I arrived in Bali at the program center, I still wasn’t done; and I turned it in two days late.

The fact that none of the students—as far as I know—turned theirs in on time, too, was quite comforting. Now that I’m older and wiser with the power of hindsight on my side, if I were to write my ISP all over again, I would still probably suffer greatly. I am floored by how long it takes to write that project, but holding the finished product in my hands makes up for the experience in spades.

Thank you, and until next time!

On Identity Abroad: A Woman of Color in Indonesia

So, my Independent Study Project (ISP) situation was a bit different than the majority of the students’ this semester. I was one of the few who ventured outside of the program’s main island (Bali) onto other islands. In my case, I travelled to the Lake Toba area in North Sumatra first, then to Jakarta in Java, before returning to Bali.

Locations of ISP Study (Sumatra and Java)

While theoretically, each of us conducts our ISP alone in an academic sense, I considered myself also physically alone and independent from the program and other students. Although the program ensures to check in with each and every one of its students through phone and I could rely upon contact persons stationed in both my locations, I felt the weight of my independence quite severely. For a good portion of my ISP month, I was literally alone, with my contacts and the SIT Program staff only available for emergencies.

I must say that my isolation from the SIT group was mostly a personal advantage to me and my study, because it offered me great opportunity to examine myself and how others in Indonesia navigate my presence in ways that I could not have while sequestered within a group of people. In addition, I had opportunity to observe other aspects of Indonesian life and culture across multiple islands, which more concretely impressed upon me how greatly diverse Indonesia is.

ISP Weaving Project

One subject addressed during Whitman’s pre-semester off-campus study orientation was the experience of being a woman and a person of color abroad. I would consider myself to be both, and these two aspects of my identity became very relevant to my experiences during the study, but in surprising ways. From that orientation and from my own musings on the subject, my general conclusion seemed to be that whatever ethnicity you appear as will be in contrast to the general look of the people living in your chosen country of study. In some sense, my time in Bali and Java confirmed this thought. While the majority of my homestay parents remarked upon my similar coloring to Indonesians (or of Asian ethnicities), most Indonesians do not wear their hair curly such as I, which makes me quite easy to identify as a foreigner. However, in North Sumatra, many people wore curly hair.


Imagine my surprise. It was pretty awesome to see the many varieties of dark, curly hair there. While I hadn’t came across someone with ringlets as tight as mine, some came pretty close. One of my former homestay families has a little girl with a mountain of curly hair. Whenever we ventured out together as a group, I seemed to go completely unnoticed among them. My newfound capability to ‘slip under the public radar’ was in stark contrast to my experiences in Bali. Not only was my curly hair an anomaly there, but the majority of my SIT group was made up of white women. Needless to say, we often drew quite a crowd—especially in areas non-frequented by tourists. In contrast, it was quite disorienting to walk unnoticed in public spaces while living in North Sumatra.

North Sumatra Homestay Family

If I had planned to do more participant observation for my study, then I would have been in a very good position to do so. That was the only instance in my life where I blended into the majority population, and while that did not necessarily change my attitude towards Indonesia or even towards myself, I finally experienced the power of going unnoticed after nearly three months of nothing but attention.

Thank you, and until next time!

Embarking upon the ISP: More Trite Conclusions

Before jumping into my personal experiences, let me break down my ISP for you: I aimed to study about the creation and usage of Batak textiles, also known as ulos. In order to find interviewees, I decided to travel to Balige in North Sumatra and spend time with the Toba Batak weavers there, as well as to get a handle on the social functions of ulos in that area. Perhaps halfway into my month I would leave Sumatra and head towards Jakarta (the capital city of Indonesia) in Java for an incredibly well-timed museum exhibition about ulos.

I entered into my period of study with no clear thought on how to narrow down my subject focus into something more worthy of a final thesis. Due to a lack of information at the time about specific ulos in the Balige area, I was forced to adopt a ‘go with the flow’ attitude in order to make the most of whatever information I was able to actually glean from my time in Balige. I must say, that this ‘go with the flow’ attitude was the most useful and widely applicable mindset to adopt. Beginning with complications with my flight to Sumatra, leading into a multitude of random, odd occurrences during my ISP and onto strange tangents in regard to my study, as well as much more; the mindset helped alleviate the anxiety that springs up with the unexpected. Furthermore, I feel that this attitude equipped me with the strengths to navigate those new and unfamiliar experiences.

Travelling along Lake Toba to Desa Meat

Desa Meat from a Distance

For example, I arrive in Medan, Sumatra, and prepare for a long drive to my target area in Balige. What was supposed to be a four-hour drive became a nine-hour drive, and my plans to immediately settle into my living space were put on hold. Instead I stayed the night at the home of my contact in Balige. And from there on out, my living situation was as similarly unpredictable as that first night. Although I did secure a space very close the village, I often randomly bounced between it and my contact’s home. I had expected my contact to withdraw once I’d settled in, but instead he and his family would graciously bring me to various places in Balige in order to show me how their Batak culture could be seen within the city—which was an invaluable help to my study.

Balige City

In all honesty, I feel like I continually come to conclusions during my semester that should be beyond obvious, so forgive me if I’ll make another: Without my contact or his family, I would certainly not have had access to many of the places and people that have fueled my ISP study. In fact, I would not have even known that these people and places exist! Thus, I come to the extraordinarily trite conclusion that connections are everything. Such people are more likely to know the ins and outs of a place and of their people far better than I, a stranger, could divulge during my brief stay. Without them, my study would certainly be lacking the bits and pieces that in my opinion enhance the overall quality and depth of my findings.

This is a Papaya, Big Papaya

Even by taking the time to simply socialize with the people in the area enriched my experience and added to my knowledge, impressing upon me how very little I actually knew and where I should start in my journey to find out more. Therefore, I make the claim that dedicating the time to casually integrate oneself into the social spheres of a place is just an important as the academic research that one must perform while conducting their ISP.

Thank you, and until next time!