I had always wanted to see snow, but getting stuck for ten hours at JFK airport in New York because of a violent snow storm was a little more than I had bargained for!
On route to attend the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR) On-Campus Conference from Feb. 18 to 21 in Cambridge, I eventually arrived at Boston airport at 2 a.m. on the 17th.
The Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations is a partnership between the students and faculty of Harvard University, offering a sustained academic program and a forum of exchange to facilitate discussion of the most important economic, political and social issues relevant to the Asia Pacific region. Past speakers at the conferences include former South Korean President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae Jung, Governor General of Australia Peter Hollingworth, and Singapore President S.R. Nathan.
Submitting my application essays in early December and following a telephone interview from the US on 29th December, I was delighted to learn that I had been selected to join the Conference and would be joining 125 other delegates at Harvard, from universities all around the world. Work now began in earnest, researching and preparing presentations on two case studies related to Asian Regionalism, my chosen panel topic. This also meant emailing the other members of my team; Claire from Oxford University, Katy from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Spencer from Virginia University and Ej from George Washington University. It was a great exercise in team work as we each prepared different aspects of the topic so that we could put everything together when we met at Harvard.
As I passed the magnificent gate to the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, I remembered hearing the superstition that Harvard students are only allowed to pass through the gate once on their way in and once when their studies are completed – more than this and they will not finish their studies – a sobering thought!
Arriving at Harvard Yard, the center of the campus, with its beautiful, old, snow – covered buildings and the statue of John Harvard, I felt as if I was in a dream world, however, the deep tones from the church bell tower and the biting winter cold left me in no doubt that I really was at Harvard. I touched the foot of John Harvard’s statue as tradition demanded and made a wish. That first day flew by in a whirl of activities, including a tour of the campus and a tour of Boston. Harvard University’s library, with its vast collection of books is a veritable scholar’s paradise.
Opening the HPAIR Conference on Feb. 19, Executive Director Yichen Chen spoke about the need for greater changes in the existing economic and political order both domestically and internationally and hoped that this year’s HPAIR Harvard Conference with its theme: “Asia Ascendant: Seizing New Heights”, would advance discourse about Asia’s current role in the global community as well as fostering discussion on its future blue print.
She further noted that while the plenary sessions on foreign policy and gender equality sought to reconcile Asia’s past with its present, the six panel sessions would explore related topics of importance – leadership, economy, security, environment, education and regionalism.
Each day, the highly-charged academic atmosphere of the conference intensified as scholars from around the world listened and exchanged ideas with Harvard professors. I was surprised and felt deep respect for the humility of these great academics, masters of their fields and yet so ready to listen to and note down ideas from students. The sense of students and professors as colleagues working in a team was exciting and only served to stimulate even greater creativity. This is surely what the world needs in order to eliminate poverty, resolve conflict and reduce global warming.
While the first day’s keynote speech explored the positive and negative aspects of the administration of President Barack Obama, subsequent speakers explored topics such as Japan-US relations, gender issues, and the importance of history in shaping the Asian mindset.
From my panel group of 22 delegates, we were then divided into smaller groups to work on our case studies. On the last day of the conference, each group presented our two case studies and I’m thrilled to say that the two presentations made by my group about the future of ASEAN and integration in Asia, took first place in their respective categories. To be appreciated by professors from this venerable university was a moment that I will treasure forever.
Before leaving Jakarta, I had the honor to make a presentation about my proposed trip to Harvard to Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo. His enthusiasm and passion for scholarship gave me courage to make the journey to the US to represent the youth of Jakarta and the University of Indonesia. I hope that many other students from Indonesia will go to Harvard for subsequent conferences and hopefully do further studies at this esteemed university which gives high importance to international relations.
Harvard University’s motto is “Veritas,” Truth, and as I stood wearing my kebaya and kain, with new-found friends from around the world, I understood that truth builds trust. There is no need to impress others or exaggerate. I am content to be my true self and to belong to Indonesia.
Putu Geniki L. Natih
The writer is a student of the faculty of Economics, University of Indonesia and a delegate to the 2010 HPAIR Conference at Harvard University