The Indonesian Government’s Darmasiswa Scholarship provides funding for foreign students to study Indonesian language, culture and the arts at one of a selection of institutions across the archipelago. With applications for the 2017-2018 program now open, we asked a few past recipients to share their story – including Nicholas Combe, whose Darmasiswa experience has inspired him to return to Indonesia for further adventures.

Back in 2011 I was lucky enough to be a recipient of a Darmasiswa Scholarship to go to Yogyakarta to study Javanese gamelan. I had no idea at that point just how much it would affect my life. I write this as I am back in Yogyakarta, five years later, still in love with this city, with this country and with Javanese music.

Nicholas at a weekly gamelan rehearsal in his local village. Photo: Nicholas Combe

I didn’t really have any idea what would happen when I reached Indonesia. I had heard that someone would pick me up from the airport in Jakarta to take me to orientation. The entire application process was shrouded in vagueness. No one really told me what to do when I found out I got the scholarship. Months later, I got an email asking why I hadn’t officially accepted. In a world where most applications are submitted online, the process at the Indonesian Embassy, with multiple photocopies of documents and envelopes, seemed a thing of the past.

Learning to deal with bureaucratic processes can be a big hurdle when coming to this country. Everything operates in a different way to Australia. Things may seem inefficient and unnecessary when filling out forms. Visas, application forms, and even buying train tickets can leave you wondering if anyone actually knows what is going on. But if you arm yourself with patience and a sense of humour, you will soon realise that maybe no one does, but it doesn’t really matter. Somehow everything will work out in the end. It won’t be at all how you expected it to be, but something will happen.

The weekly gamelan rehearsals take place in Monggo, Gunung Kidul, south of the city. Photo: Nicholas Combe

After an orientation in Jakarta, all the students from the university I was to study at, the Indonesian Institute Of The Arts (ISI) were sent to Yogyakarta. The first week we spent trying to find houses and transport options before we studied. The international students going to my university came from all over the world. I was surprised by the lack of Australians. There was one fellow Australian studying art in her second year, but most Darmasiswa students at my university were from Europe (predominately Poland, Germany and Hungary), South Africa and other countries in Asia.

Whilst I had some prior knowledge of Indonesian from primary and high school in Australia, most of the European students had no prior knowledge. While it can be difficult to study without Indonesian, most of the students managed to pick up enough language to get by quite quickly.

A lot of the university placements offered for Darmasiswa throughout Indonesia are Indonesian language courses. The Institute Of The Arts, however, offers courses in all traditional arts (dance, music, shadow puppetry, handicraft, batik and ethnomusicology) as well as contemporary arts (theatre, film, photography, painting, sculpture and Western music). There are ISI universities scattered around Indonesia, and each one offers specialised local variants. If you want to study at an ISI it is best to work out which district of Indonesian arts you would like to study.

Each department at ISI differs in how Darmasiswa students study. In some areas like karawitan (Central Javanese music), there are specialised Darmasiswa classes run by a teacher who can speak English. Other departments such as batik, fine art and photography, Darmasiswa students are often left to their own devices, or they join the regular classes attended by local students. This can be frustrating for some students if they aren’t really sure what they are supposed to do. Others take it in their stride and use it as an opportunity to explore their own artistic endeavours.

Nicholas prepares for a wayang kulit performance. Photo: Nicholas Combe

Studying in Yogyakarta is an amazing diverse experience. University is a lot more relaxed than Australia. Classes are regularly late and sometimes cancelled and assessment is very vague. There are, however, bountiful extracurricular activities and performances and opportunities. You may find that some weeks you have lots of classes and extra classes and you spend all your time at uni. The next week, there may be not so many classes, but experiences outside of uni that fill up all your time and soul. Then of course there are just quiet weeks.

If you are willing to go with the flow it can be fruitful experience, where you can develop relationships, artistic ideas, and language comprehension, and have some very funny experiences. Some of my best friends now are from those years, and my language skills and sense of independence went through the roof while living and studying in Yogyakarta.

Registration for the 2017-2018 Darmasiswa Scholarship Program is open until 9 February. For more information click here.