From August 2014 until May 2016, my life was pretty much defined by my position as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Indonesia. I know there are many people who might point out that twenty-two months is not a particularly long time, in the grand scheme of things, but there is no denying the unbelievable growth I have experienced during this short time, and it often feels like as though my two grants lasted much longer.
After properly moving to Jakarta and making the time to start blogging again, I was reminded of just how much I have gained from the ETA experience just by opening up my WordPress account. Throughout my two-ish years as an ETA, I published 70 numbered blog posts (as well as almost a dozen that I chose, for one reason or another, to not title numerically), on topics ranging from my struggle to understand different school systems, to my visits to some of the most incredible places on earth, to my frustrations with international religious intolerance, to my ongoing relationship with mati lampu. I have had a wealth of opportunities as an ETA, from the things I have been able to do and the people—both Indonesian and American—whom I have been able to meet, and I have tried my hardest to make the most of all of this.
In some ways, I have been successful. There is no denying that I dove in to my role as a teacher during both of my grants; being able to participate in the WORDS competition both in 2015 and 2016 allowed me a way to use my program to pass on an opportunity to one of my students; and I cannot help but look at The Bahasa Project with a simultaneous sense of pride and utmost humility (that so many ETAs were interested in working to make this a project a reality last year still amazes me, and I am excited to say that there are several ETAs from this current cohort who would like to continue the project).
At the same time, I have made a lot of mistakes as an ETA, and the road has not always been easy. My inability to say no resulted in my teaching almost forty hours in the classroom every week, and on two campuses, during my first grant, and the level of strain this put on me both physically and mentally is probably why I contracted typhoid at the end of my first grant; I have made cultural mistake after cultural mistake, and I continue to do so quite regularly after two years of living in Indonesia; periods of loneliness, bouts of being fed up with standing out and all that implies, and times of low semangat have led me, during both of my grants, to hiding myself in my room and ignoring the community in which I should be engaging (I should note here that this is an entirely natural reaction to living in a place so far outside of your comfort zone, and I have tried very hard not to think of myself as less of an ETA for having these moments, though often that itself is a struggle).
I have had good days and bad days. I have flown higher than I ever had before, and have sunk into dark pits of being the kind of person I had always promised myself I would never be. I laughed, cried, agonized, celebrated, apologized, listened, and learned to an extent I would never have thought possible, until I did.
Having this kind of experience inspires, like nothing else, the desire to give back to the program that gave me this opportunity. This is partially what brought me to become one of the Senior ETAs (SETAs, though we were called Returners then) and return to Indonesia for a second year. And it is most definitely my greatest motivation for taking on my current position as the Researcher Coordinator (RC). I have only really begun my time in this role, but I hope that I will be able to do it well, and be of use to the current cohort of ETAs, who have at this point been at their sites for about a month.
The first task of every RC, and perhaps the largest task they will take on all year, is to plan and develop the ETA orientation alongside the American Program Team from AMINEF and the 2016-17 SETAs. A few months of planning via digital communication (hundreds of emails were sent in the making of orientation), and two weeks of intense planning in person in the AMINEF office resulted in a two-and-a-half-week training for the incoming cohort, in which they all participated after spending one week at their sites.
I have never in my life planned or run anything quite like ETA Orientation. In less than three weeks we hoped to provide ETAs with the language training, introduction to teaching practices, and cultural understanding that they need to make the most of the nine months they will spend in Indonesia (time that will invariably fly by). There are a million moving pieces, and if just one of those pieces decides to shift too drastically, it can create a ripple effect through a good portion of the planning that so many people have put so much work into. More than once, when juggling some of the organizational and thematical issues which arose during orientation, I was quite convinced that the entire thing would come crashing down.
Fortunately, while I have never tackled anything quite on this scale, this is not my first leadership rodeo. From acting as a Livestock Skill-a-thon Coach starting at age 15, to co-instructing a student-led Honors seminar my Junior year of college, to standing in front of dozens of classrooms full of wide-eyed young people who are somehow convinced I deserve to be at the head of the class, I have had my fair share of moments in which I am sure that I have absolutely failed everyone that I have sought to help. I’ve yet to come to the point in my life in which I can stop myself from feeling that way in those moments, but I have learned very well how to keep pushing through, and to be able to reflect fairly on the experience afterwards, and see it for just what it was: usually something that was in no way perfect, but also not disastrous, and always an opportunity to learn (I recently finished the Orientation Summary Report for this year, and I hope that my more specific reflections will also be learning opportunities for the next RC).
Throughout the planning process and orientation itself, I was continually humbled by the level of dedication from everyone involved in making it run (from the AMINEF Team members, to the SETAs, to the hotel staff in charge of our group), the generosity with which professionals of all kinds were willing to give to orientation, and the openness and diligence with which the incoming ETAs approached the training. The orientation was not perfect, and it certainly challenged me both personally and professionally, but in the end I feel there were some successes, and I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced all of it, and this feeling of satisfaction was caused in no small manner by the way in which the incredible people who helped me throughout were able to create what successes we had.
Orientation was also really the moment in which I truly stepped into my role as RC, leaving almost completely behind the ETA I had been for the past two years. Though as a SETA I had assisted with orientation, I still participated in many of the sessions as an ordinary ETA. This year, I was regularly making changes and preparations during language classes and such, and there were whole sessions I did not get to see because of behind-the-scenes work. Even with all of this, though, it didn’t really hit me until all of the ETAs were headed back to their sites that I really wasn’t an ETA anymore. Even now that orientation was over, I was not headed back to a school to work in the classrooms, where I am most comfortable. I was headed back to an office in Jakarta to continue in my new role.
There is a part of me that was saddened by this. I am a certified teacher for a reason: I love working with students, and I truly feel called to be an educator in a way that I cannot fully articulate except through the time and energy I have always promised myself I would never cease to pour into the teaching roles I have had. Not having that every day this year had been hard, and while I am working on finding ways to bring young people into my life in Jakarta, I have not quite done so. I knew that I would be giving something up by becoming RC, but I did not fully realize the extent to which I would feel this until I was in the middle of it.
But I continue to be mostly excited for this new role. Though I miss the classroom desperately, it is because I do not have the demands of my ETA role in a school that I am able to give myself over so fully to trying to develop better programming and support systems for ETAs in Indonesia, and I cannot express how fortunate that makes me feel. And though I am not in the classroom this year, I am still able to use the training and experience I have been blessed to have to assist ETAs: it is a kind of teaching, but in a different fashion. And a huge part of my position this year is research, something in which I have very little experience, but which I am thrilled to be able to dive into the challenges of. All teachers are learners, and I know that I will learn so much about so many realms this year, from leadership, to research, to myself.
I am sure I will continue to make mistakes as RC, and fall short in much of what I will try to do, in the same way that was not always successful in my efforts as an ETA. But I do hope that, in the end, I am able to be of use to the many fabulous ETAs that make up this current cohort, and give back to the program that has, and will continue to, allow me the chance to stretch and grow in so many incredible ways.