When 33-year-old Mumpuni Ardiyani was preparing to leave for Brisbane to study at the University of Queensland, she was worried about how Australians would see her as a Muslim.
Mumpuni wears a headscarf, which does not attract much attention in Jakarta, but she had no idea what to expect in Brisbane. She had heard stories from friends about racism in Australia, but after being in Brisbane for a while, she learned that there was no reason to worry.
“None of my friends are weird about it, some even enthusiastically ask why I wear hijab, or if I feel hot in it,” she says.
Mumpuni decided to share her story about Brisbane on the blog NengKoala.com. Her story is just one of many helpful posts on the blog run by female Indonesian students in Australia that has been active since last month. The blog is set to be officially be launched on Saturday, the day on which Indonesian women’s rights icon Raden Ajeng Kartini is honored.
“We plan to launch on Kartini Day because [the blog] reflects educational values that Kartini struggled to achieve for Indonesian women,” said Melati, 27, the initiator of Neng Koala.
The name comes from “Neng”, a slang Indonesian word for “Miss,” and koala, the native animal from Down Under.
Wearing a headscarf is just one of many topics about living in Australia that may be helpful for female Indonesian students. It covers topics useful for daily life, such as how to get a driver’s license, the best place to find secondhand furniture and quick recipes to make at home — the kind of things that may seem trivial, but are crucial in making studying overseas a pleasant experience.
When it comes to pursuing higher education in graduate school, many women feel they must choose between formal study and marriage. In Indonesia, students generally finish their undergraduate studies by age 23, and then choose between finding work, pursuing higher study or getting married. It’s a difficult decision for many.
The idea for Neng Koala came to Melati when she heard that a friend had turned down a scholarship to dedicate herself to her new family. Melati believes that marriage is no reason to stop going to school. In Australia, she said, around 60 percent of Indonesian female graduate students are married and have children.
Melati herself has been married since 2009, before she planned to study in Australia. She and her husband, Reza Anggara, are now studying at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia’s capital.
“I know a lot of Indonesian students in Australia who manage to go there for study and they bring their husband and children,” she said. “My personal ambition is to let more people know about this possibility, that you can get married and go to school as well.”
Melati runs the blog as an administrator with Adhityani Dhitri Putri, a fellow student at ANU. NengKoala has already attracted 85 contributors from all over Australia, including Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.
Written in Indonesian by Indonesians, Melati said the blog aimed for an audience of female Indonesian students who wanted to study overseas, as well as their families and friends. All of the contributors are either undergraduate or postgraduate students, or graduates of Australian universities.
Other than inspiring women to study, Melati also aims for the blog to answer never-ending questions from her friends about how to compete for a scholarship, and what it is like to study in Australia.
Dhitri said Indonesian students in Australia who were new parents generally struggled with raising a child without family support. Dhitri mentioned that in Indonesia, family is often nearby to help with baby-sitting, while in Australia, female students can only rely on their spouse.
“It’s tough,” said Dhitri, a mother of an 18-month-old girl. “Yes, you have child care, but outside of business hours, you are on your own.”
Neng Koala aims to publish two new stories every week, although sometimes it gets up to five new stories a day from contributors. For editing, they submit articles for peer review among contributors. An article must be read by at least three fellow contributors before it gets published.
The many facets of juggling family and study is a huge topic to cover. Karina Arti Endayani, an ANU graduate, wrote for the blog about going to school in Australia with school-aged children. Karina is a single mother of two children, aged 5 and 7, who brought her children along with her while studying.
“I went through the first seven and a half months without my children, because I needed to save money and look for a school,” she said. “But not a day went by when I didn’t cry from missing them.”
When her children finally came over to meet her in Australia, Karina soon discovered how much she used to rely on her nannies back home.
“Luckily, they were there two weeks before school started, so I had time to teach them how to eat without me feeding them,” she said.
Karina now sleeps only five hours a day to manage her time between taking care of her children and completing her studies, but she is proud of how independent and helpful her children have become. She also makes a rule not to study on Saturdays, so she can spend quality time with her children. Fellow Indonesian students also help out by baby-sitting during exam week.
“After two years in Australia, I think my children and I have become closer,” she said. “It is not easy to bring children to study overseas, but it is possible, and I just hope our friends will considerate it.”
Emma Soraya is another mom studying in Australia. The mother of a 2-year-old and 7-month-old shared her story with Neng Koala of buying secondhand baby items for her sons. After paying all the excess baggage fees to bring the items from home, she arrived to find that Baby Kids Market in Canberra had everything she needed.
“Having children comes with its own expenses, especially when you’re on a scholarship,” she said. “I just discovered that there’s a cheap [kids] market here in Canberra, which is very affordable on a student’s budget.”
Emma even discovered that if she stayed until closing time, she could get an even bigger discount. Such tips are shared in her blog post, as Emma hopes to give a picture of life in Australia for practical mothers.
Neng Koala is not affiliated with any government or nongovernmental organizations. News of its existence is spread by word of mouth, and that is how it gets contributors.
“We also hope to be able to involve new students as soon as they come here, so once we leave, they can continue the work,” Melati said.