Forging Cultural Understanding

Exploring how Australian students develop intercultural understanding through study abroad programs in Indonesia.

Studying abroad is more than just learning in a foreign context, students also gain a working knowledge of another country’s culture. Trying new foods, adjusting to different daily routines, and setting up a home away from home are just some of the factors that contribute to how well a person settles in and which elements of a culture they adopt. 

Every year, the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) sends groups of students from Australia to spend a semester at a university in Indonesia. Kate Naidu, a PhD candidate in cultural studies at Western and a former teacher of Bahasa Indonesia, describes the process of intercultural learning gained from their in-country experiences, and how this improves their capacity to communicate and interact effectively with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. 

“It is often assumed that study abroad schemes automatically produce intercultural capacities,” says Naidu. “My research examines whether students improve their intercultural capacities, and how this happens.”

Naidu conducted in-depth interviews with students before, during and after their semester in Indonesia. She took the past experiences of students into account, including their educational backgrounds and previous travel experiences. She also held focus group discussions with pendamping (local Indonesian students recruited as ‘buddies’) and did interviews with ACICIS in-country staff. 

Need to know

  • Study-abroad programmes can provide opportunities for intercultural development.
  • Western's Kate Naidu is investigating how this happens.
  • She hopes her findings will help improve student experience in study-abroad programs.

Naidu looked at which factors help build intercultural capacity during an in-country experience including formal educational aspects, such as university classes and private language tutoring, as well as informal aspects, such as relationships with locals and other ACICIS students, individual personality differences, new routines, and navigating unfamiliar local built environments, transport, and even climate. 

An example is the way students discussed attitudes to time. “The way that students engage with diverse temporal rhythms and different framings of ‘time’ itself is fascinating,” says Naidu. “Indonesians tend to have a relaxed approach and will refer to jam karet, or ‘rubber time’. They often walk more slowly, and punctuality is less important to them. Some Australian students struggle with this.”

While on the surface, such differences may seem just philosophical or cultural, Naidu notes they are at the heart of how a society runs, such as eating times, periods of waiting, and daily routines structured around prayer times. 

“In this way, the experience of being in-country provides opportunities to inhabit alternative ways of being in the world which may ‘bump up’ against existing understandings and practices,” she explains. The insights gathered from Naidu’s discussions with the ACICIS cohort will provide nuanced points to focus on, in student induction sessions at host universities. She hopes her research findings will guide future policy and practice for institutions that host and run study abroad programs, and that this will subsequently enrich student experiences.

Meet the Academic | Kate Naidu

Kate Naidu is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. She previously completed undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of New South Wales, before working as a school teacher for several years. In 2016 she completed a Master of Research, with a thesis titled ‘Issues of ‘interculturality’ in Indonesian language teaching’. Her current research considers the development of intercultural capacities as a function of in-country education.  


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Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.