“I’m a first-generation student, my family couldn’t help me”

“I’m a first-generation student, my family couldn’t help me”

Students on their future plans

06-03-2024 · Interview

“I last saw my family three years ago, and that hurts, but you have to make a sacrifice to make an impact”, says Ridho Dirgantara. The student, who grew up in a poor family in rural Indonesia, plans to found an NGO and help Indonesian children.   

Unpaved, bumpy roads. Scorching heat in which rice farmers dutifully carry out their work day after day. Poverty, lack of prospects. Dirgantara (third year University College Maastricht (UCM)) was born 23 years ago on the countryside not far from the metropolis of Bandung on Java, Indonesia. “And as much as I love my homeland, I knew as a child already that I wanted to leave it. I wanted to learn more about the big, wide world and broaden my perspective. I felt somehow restricted.” Dirgantara had these thoughts already at the age of seven. He didn't find any connection with his classmates at the time because he couldn't relate to their interests – football players and cars. “I loved books. After my mother taught me to read, I could hardly get away from them." His first real "adult book" was – also at the age of seven – 'Broken Wings' by Kahlil Gibran. A poetic novel from 1912 about a failed love affair, actually a social criticism of the living conditions in the Middle East in those times. And it was his love for literature that ultimately paved the way for him from the rice fields of Indonesia to high level education in Europe. “I took part in national poetry competitions as a teenager. There I met, for the first time, people who were like me. Who were also very lonely as children, read a lot, and who wanted to discover the world.”


He had finally found friends. People who accepted him as he was and, above all, understood him. One of them gave Dirgantara the advice to apply for a scholarship at the UWC (United World College) in Italy. “A broad education, classmates from all over the world, and an open campus. That sounded perfect!”, the UCM student still enthuses today. “But I had a problem: I barely spoke English. And no Italian at all. And yes, would I even be accepted?” It worked. He started at the UWC near Trieste in 2018, took an intensive English course, and got to know – again – people who weren’t understood for a long time. “I made friends from conflict zones, like Afghanistan and Mali. And it was sometimes super emotional, even difficult to hear their stories. But I learned to deal with other cultures, and now that I study, I can always ask someone for context when I read something in class about the Middle East for example.”

Almost like home

After he graduated from UWC, it wasn't a big step to Maastricht anymore. “UCM was my first choice, because it has an open campus, and I can take courses that suit my interests. Via the YUFE-program that is offered here (Young Universities for the Future of Europe), I can be even more flexible and study at several European universities at the same time. I also immediately felt comfortable here, because UCM is just like the UWC very international, and the Netherlands are in terms of architecture partly very similar to Indonesia,” he laughs. He is alluding to the Dutch colonial period of exploitation of Indonesia for over 350 years. “The roofs around Amsterdam are like this in the town near my village too, but the cultures differ a lot: we would never be so non-hierarchical." Dirgantara is also examining an aspect of Dutch-Indonesian colonial history in his Capstone, the final work of his Liberal Arts bachelor's degree. “In short, the point is that Indonesians struggle enormously with climate change. And this affects me also because my older brother lives in an area of ​​Jakarta that was hit hard by the flood. The city architecture, including the canal system, that’s all Dutch heritage.” He wants to find out more about how Jakarta was planned, and what exactly needs to be done to improve the situation. So that his compatriots, including his family, are better prepared for future storms. When Dirgantara talks about his family, a smile crosses his face. He misses them very much. “I last saw my family three years ago. We talk on the phone every week, but I still feel like I'm no longer part of their daily life. And that hurts. But you have to make a sacrifice if you want to make an impact.”

Indonesian UWC

So what comes after the summer, when Dirgantara graduates from UCM? Which impact does he envisage? “I applied for a Master’s in Environmental Management in Wageningen, Twente and some other places. Simultaneously, I am preparing to set up an NGO about educational accessibility and experimental learning with a friend.” He imagines a kind of Indonesian UWC, “but for underprivileged children and with Indonesian as the language of instruction.” Around 2030, the NGO, he hopes, will start to offer the first Indonesian children a real opportunity for advancement. “With a high quality of education and international training.” Particularly, he wants to reach the children in the most remote parts of Indonesia, with the smallest chances. “That we really go to places where no one has ever heard of international scholarships. I think it’s important that we give these children a chance to get them.” But Dirgantara also knows that it’s still a long way before this becomes reality: “We need to find investors and get more people on board.” 

Making a noticeable difference in a country where, even today, not everyone can go to secondary school. Dirgantara wants nothing less than that. But he needs help. “So far I have done everything alone. I am a first-generation student and no one in my family could help me. I need guidance and resources, from a mentor, for example from the ‘Boulevard’-program. Someone who has already walked my path and can show me how I can overcome the next hurdles.”

Author: Simon Wirtz

Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: indonesia, uwc, ucm, first generation student, poverty,instagram

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