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Combining culture, language and health research in Indonesia – Melbourne scholar’s NCP experience

2019 New Colombo Plan scholar Madeline McGarvey fell in love with Indonesia during a short-term public health study tour, where she became fascinated by the public health system there. She returned for her NCP Scholarship, where she has been able to delve into health model research and deepen connections.

The RMIT University Bachelor of Arts (International Studies, Honours) student has a passion for health, so when RMIT called for expressions of interest for an NCP Scholarship, Madeline decided she would apply and return to Indonesia.

“I deliberated as to whether or not I would apply. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to leave Melbourne, but it wasn’t long before I decided that it was a must. I couldn’t think of a better opportunity to live, study and intern in the Indo-Pacific region than with an NCP Scholarship,” explained Madeline.

Madeline decided on her RMIT degree out of an interest in social and systemic change, particularly focused on global public health. “I was really drawn to a smaller, more intimate degree and wanted something that had a strong focus on critical thinking and systems theory,” says Madeline. “I am interested in pursuing a career in public health, with a focus on women’s health, reproductive rights and One Health initiatives.”

Photo of Madeline sitting on a rock at the Stone Garden in West Java.
Madeline at Stone Garden in West Java. Credit: Lotte Troost.

Madeline tailored her NCP program around an honours thesis and completed the ACICIS West Java Field Study Program, hosted by Universitas Katolik Parahyangan in Bandung, Indonesia. Madeline’s field research and internship were completed at Yayasan Bumi Sehat, a not-for-profit, holistic family health and midwifery centre in Bali. “Working with Yayasan Bumi Sehat allowed me to gain intercultural knowledge of the differences that exist in medical models between Australia and Indonesia,” Madeline says.

“I found it quite a challenge in the beginning trying to navigate research in a foreign environment. I had to give up preconceptions of how research ‘should’ look, and I quickly realised that I would need to pivot my research design to be more culturally appropriate.”

Madeline travelled often between Bandung and Bali. “The exchange program was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life to date.  My research resulted in many connections across Indonesia, all of which I am so grateful for. I was able to meet with midwives and traditional birth attendants in West Java and Bali and to network with health professionals at conferences, in universities and in hospitals. These were really meaningful, reciprocal connections and the conversations that I had both challenged and inspired me,” says Madeline.

Madeline used her passion for public health as her doorway to fully experience Indonesia. “When everything is new and there is so much to learn, it can feel a little emotionally and intellectually overwhelming,” she says. “I found it helpful to focus my attention on what I was really interested in - healthcare in Indonesia - and dive into learning as much as I could about that. All the rest fell into place and I became more attuned to cultural nuances through my research, conversations and the people I was meeting.”

Madeline looks back on her NCP program and experiences in Indonesia fondly. “I am reminded of just how transformative it was. Highlights included witnessing the work of midwives across the archipelago, defending my thesis at my host university, diving with turtles and manta rays in Flores, and living within an Indonesian family for six weeks when I first arrived. However, just as rich are the memories I have of fumbling in a new language, having expansive - sometimes challenging - conversations, and making so many wonderful new friends.”

Despite ‘fumbling’ with her Indonesian at the start, Madeline appreciated the opportunity to learn the language in an intensive setting at the start of her program. “One of the best things about learning a language in-country is the abundance of opportunities there are to practice: every time you order, need directions or visit a new place. I found my host family to be incredibly kind in their willingness to listen as I tried out new vocabulary and often, clumsily, failed in my pronunciation.”

Madeline says that research is key to writing a strong application, advising that once international travel resumes, applicants should research the host location and work with their home university on a program that “will excite both you and the selection panel.”

“Share your passion for the region, your willingness to engage with different cultures, and your commitment to forging long-lasting, people-to-people ties between Australia and the Indo-Pacific.”

“I know it might sound like a cliché, but this really is a once in a lifetime experience. With the support of the NCP Scholarship, you can live in a country of your choice, building relationships, learning languages, and engaging in challenging, exciting and mind-shifting conversations. It allows you to expand perspectives, build intercultural intelligence and humble yourself to the gifts of a different place.”

“I am so grateful for the generosity of the New Colombo Plan Scholarship. I can honestly say that there is no way I could have had such a rich, diverse, and immersive experience without it. I have gained invaluable personal and professional experiences that are likely to influence my life for years to come.” 

Madeline will continue her NCP program with further public health focused internships when travel is possible again.

Photo of Madeline at Borobudur temple in Central Java.
Madeline at Borobudur temple in Central Java. Credit: Rama Yudhistira Mokoginta.
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