Destination ANU, Against All Odds

17th March 2022

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PhD Student Profile: Muhammad Beni Saputra

Every once in a while, you meet an individual who appears to be unassuming nothing out of the ordinary. But then you listen to their story, and you realise how inaccurate first impressions can be. Meeting and talking to Muhammad Beni Saputra for the first time, I was taken by surprise to hear the remarkable journey he’s had to get to the Australian National University.

Dreaming the Dream

Hailing from Jambi, a province in Sumatra, Indonesia, Beni has always been a dreamer. He is the only one in his family who can speak English. His parents are farmers, but Beni wanted to study, so his parents sent him to the city of Jambi. Beni left home at the age of 12, after completing elementary school, attending a dormitory school and living by himself. Beni had, for long, harboured a secret ambition—to fulfil his dream to study abroad.

“It was a wild dream even when I was at university in the city of Jambi. Most people did not believe in my dream, because nobody in my village or even district had got a scholarship to study in the West or an English speaking country. When I was in the third year of my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, I got a scholarship to study in the US for two months. This was something historic for my community.”

The scholarship opportunity was a major confidence booster, making Beni realise he had the potential—his dreams were not so farfetched or wild after all. This milestone opened up the floodgates of opportunity for Beni, and he was consistently selected for many programs thereafter, both in Indonesia and overseas.

In 2013, a year after he graduated, he was selected as one of the Indonesian delegates for the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP), where Dr Ross Tapsell from ANU was a senior delegate.

In the same year, Beni was selected as a blogger from Malaysia and Indonesia in My Selangor Story and went to Malaysia, an initiative funded by Selangor Tourism.

Another year later, he received an LPDP scholarship from the Indonesian Ministry of Finance to study a Masters in American Studies at the University of Manchester, UK.

The Beginnings of the ANU Chapter

In 2019, Beni applied for a PhD scholarship at the same LPDP institution and was once again selected. That’s how his long journey to ANU began.

Beni really wanted to study at ANU because he knew it was one of the best in the world for Indonesian Studies. Yet, he wasn’t really sure of his chances, given that he’d studied English Literature and American Masters previously.

Would the subject of Indonesian local media and politics and how digitalisation affects local media and politics in Indonesia be convincing enough? Beni had written his Master’s thesis in media studies, but he still wasn’t sure that was enough to get him into ANU.

In 2020, Beni contacted many academic and scholars, including Dr Ross Tapsell and Associate Professor Marcus Mietzner, with his initial thesis proposal. Beni recalls that his initial thesis was missing something, but he wasn’t sure what.

Subsequently, he had several fruitful discussions with Marcus on how to write a new thesis proposal. After a month of intensive reading and writing, Beni sent a completely new proposal to Ross. The proposal was accepted. For Beni, it was a dream come true.

“I had never imagined that I could study under the supervision of someone like Ross; or even having in-depth discussions with Marcus—I had read his books while doing my Masters!. I was accepted at ANU!”

Plans, Interrupted

You would think ‘all’s well that ends well’, but of course there’s a twist in the tale. In fact, several twists…

Beni had to wait six months before initiating any plans to move to Australia, because he had to finish his IELTS classes in Jogjakarta. But two weeks into being in Jogjakarta, COVID-19 broke out.

Beni and his family were there in the middle of it all, not knowing anyone. Every single street and small alley was deserted suddenly due to a lockdown. Ultimately, Beni had to spend one and a half months in Jogjakarta before returning to Jambi and taking his IELTS classes online.

Following this first debacle, Beni went to Jakarta for the medical check-up for his visa. This time, it was in the midst of Delta, the second wave of COVID. Beni was terrified, because he didn’t want to be a carrier of the virus back home. Most people in his community believed that COVID 19 was only prevalent in Jakarta or Java, not in Jambi.

Beni completed his medical check-up and returned to Jambi. A day later, the hospital called him and informed him that he had to return to Jakarta once more because there was a white spot in his chest x-ray.

They wanted to make sure it wasn’t active TB. If it was, Beni would have to be treated at the hospital in Jakarta for six months and had to take medicines in front of the hospital officials during the Delta wave every day.

It was frightening and frustrating, because Beni would have to go back and also drag his family back with him. Nevertheless, Beni did go and take a sputum test for three days, and then returned to Jambi.

Beni obliged, went to Jakarta, and took a sputum test for three days before returning to Jambi. However, because of the suspected TB and everything that came with it, Beni had to defer his studies for about a year. He had been informed he would have to wait three months for the results. After the three months were up, Beni was asked to return to Jakarta to get the results of the test.

So Beni booked his flight. But as is customary these days, one hour before his flight, Beni had to take a COVID 19 test. In Indonesia at the time, it was a mouth-based test where one had to blow into a bag and the oxygen is analysed using a computer. The results? It was positive. Luckily, Beni insisted on a second test, and thankfully, that showed up as negative—so he finally boarded the flight to Jakarta!

Once Beni got to Jakarta, he went to the hospital to get his TB results. Fortunately, it was negative. A relieved Beni returned to Jambi, and a few days later, his visa was granted.

ANU, Finally

In February 2022, Beni was ready to travel from Jambi to Canberra for ANU. He organised his tickets to arrive in Canberra, and three days prior to his departure, he took the customary swab test for COVID.

Yes, he tested positive for the Omicron strain. Once more, Beni had to reschedule his flights, insurances, and several other logistical arrangements.

After isolating for 14 days with his family, he got another test, which was negative. He was ready to get on to the next flight to Australia. It was destination ANU—finally!

The Road Ahead

Beni has just arrived, but he’s excited. After he completes his PhD, he envisions becoming a professor of media studies and teach at his university back in Jambi. When’s he not studying, Beni loves reading and writing (not surprisingly!), and has written for New Mandala and East Asia Forum.

But it wasn’t always all work and no play for Beni. Ironically, he used to be an avid player of PlayStation when he was in high school. In fact, he used to sometimes skip classes to play PlayStation!

He finally didn’t even pass the national exam at his high school as a result of this addiction, so he had to take an alternative test (PAKET C) to make it to University! People like Beni continue to be an inspiration to so many, including young, aspiring students who forget to believe in themselves and their dreams. Despite all the odds, Beni is that much closer to living his dream.

We wish Beni all the best with his PhD and a wonderful student experience at ANU!

Are you a dreamer like Beni? Is it your dream to study something you're passionate about? Chase your dream, come to ANU!

For program administration and Academic advice please contact the CHL Education Support team on education.chl@anu.edu.au

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster