Membership of AIYA offers Indonesian and Australian youth numerous benefits, but perhaps one of the lesser-known advantages is free access to the UniBRIDGE Project online language exchange platform. But what exactly is UniBRIDGE Project? Chris Hall gives us a rundown.

What is the core philosophy behind UniBRIDGE Project?

UniBRIDGE Project can be summed up in three key words: connect, understand, and interact. The idea behind UniBRIDGE Project is that if Australians and Indonesians get together and interact with each other on a regular basis then misconceptions are smashed, barriers are overcome and friendships are formed. This is true even if the regular interactions are via web-conferencing software. UniBRIDGE Project overcomes the tyranny of distance (and costs of travel) and allows Australians and Indonesians to share language and culture through online technologies. It is improving the bilateral relationship at a grassroots level.

Screenshot of the UniBRIDGE Project web-conferencing platform. Image: Chris Hall

How did UniBRIDGE Project come about?

The basic idea behind UniBRIDGE Project is to allow Australians and Indonesians to engage in language and intercultural exchanges using the latest educational software. Participants can engage with each other from anywhere that has an Internet connection and they are also supported by a dedicated team and provided language and cultural education material.

UniBRIDGE Project started its journey in 2012 as a pilot program inspired by Asia Education Foundation’s school BRIDGE project. The working committee behind the brainstorming of the project included the likes of David Hill and Aaron O’Shannessy and was ultimately founded and led by Dr. Richard Curtis at Charles Darwin University (now at University of Sunshine Coast). Back then it was called Tertiary Bridge Project and I was a student studying externally from Sydney.

Since then it has become permanent and I transitioned from student, to mentor, to volunteer, until in 2016 I was asked to take over the management of the program. Since 2012, the program has grown from involving one Australian and one Indonesian university, to students from nine Australian universities and five Indonesian universities, as well as AIYA members.

UniBRIDGE Project participants in Australia. Photo: Chris Hall

Tell us about your own Indonesia journey – how formative were these experiences?

My Indonesian in-country study trips have left quite an impact on me, and they really did shape my motivation to make an effective organisation that builds bridges at the grassroots level.

My first Indonesian in-country trip involved three weeks in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), and three weeks in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara (NTB). It was the early days of UniBRIDGE Project but I instantly felt at ease in Kupang because I had a local support network of friends who I had been speaking to via UniBRIDGE Project for the previous six months or more.

I first realised the value of the UniBRIDGE Project experience while in Lombok. I couldn’t help notice the contrast. In Lombok, there was very little cross-cultural interaction, despite the fact that the Australian students were in their target country. Most of the Australian students mainly spoke to restaurant staff, taxi drivers and hotel workers. This experience highlighted the value of regular, real-time, contact with overseas peers – especially when eventually travelling in country.

UniBRIDGE Project participants gather together in Kupang. Photo: Daniel Hall

You also teach?

Yes, I have been an English language teacher since 2007. I have taught all levels of English and several specialist courses including Cambridge exam courses, English for Academic Purposes, and Business English. I also have experience teaching and developing learning material for French and Indonesian.

What other experiences have you sought in the Australia-Indonesia space?

I studied a Diploma of Languages (Indonesian) which involved a couple of in-country study trips. I’ve also promoted and sold crafts made from traditional tenun ikat from NTT. This idea arose in UniBRIDGE Project while chatting to one of my early language partners, whose family makes and sells these craft items in Kupang. So we worked together to get things going and now people in the US, Germany and Australia enjoy handmade tenun ikat products from Kupang. The idea is to support the local artisan community in NTT in some small way through promoting small business.

What is the best part of coordinating UniBRIDGE Project?

The best thing is seeing students develop and learn. This is both in terms of language and cultural knowledge. I like seeing Indonesian and Australians finally realise that they have different ideas of how to use the word ‘semester’, for example. And it is nice to see Indonesian students finally stop using Pak, or other Indonesian honorifics, when speaking English. And with recorded language exchanges, we can see clear development of language speaking and, importantly, increased confidence.

Australian students visiting their UniBRIDGE Project friends in Kupang. Photo: Qrezpy Pariamalinya

How would you like to see UniBRIDGE Project or similar tools used in the future?

UniBRIDGE Project relies heavily on online communication technology. This technology is only going to become more widely used, especially as more people become connected to increasingly better quality Internet. With the right kind of organisation and management, the potential for education and cross-border interaction are huge.

Already, through UniBRIDGE Project, hundreds of Australian and Indonesian university students are able to see each other, and speak to each other in real time. Imagine how would the bilateral relationship would develop if tens of thousands of Australians and Indonesians interacted with each other every week?

Finally, where can we go to find out more?

To find out more about UniBRIDGE Project visit the website here. And if you’d like to improve your English or Indonesian, check out Chris’ free language learning worksheets.