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Doctoral students from Indonesia provide valuable insight for COE research mentors

February 19, 2020
Paul Wright (back row, second from left) led workshops for the PKPI scholars.

Paul Wright (back row, second from left) led weekly workshops on writing and publishing during the fall semester for the PKPI scholars.

In what seems like an “of course it is” bit of trivia, the official language of Indonesia is – yes, Indonesian.

Linguists, according to, categorize Indonesian as “a standardized register of Riau Malay” and “among the languages of the Austronesian language family.”

Yet it’s English – the lingua franca – that commands the attention and respect of the world.

“English is the leading academic language internationally, and there’s always pressure to publish in English-language journals, which are considered the gold standard in most fields,” says Paul Wright, a professor in the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

“The Indonesian government wants to elevate the status of their institutions of higher education and how competitive they are in research,” Wright adds, “and the path to doing that is having their people publish in high-quality journals.”

For Indonesian scholars ready to answer that call, NIU’s Indonesian Peningkatan Kualitas Publikasi Internasional (PKPI) Program has offered the assistance they need.

Housed in the NIU Center for Southeast Asian Studies since 2010, PKPI invites doctoral students at Indonesian universities to apply for the opportunity to come to DeKalb. While here, those who are chosen work to develop and advance their current research projects or articles for publication under the direct guidance and supervision of NIU professors who share their interests.

James Cohen
James Cohen

James Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, has mentored nine Indonesian doctoral students since 2010. LaVerne Gyant, professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education, has served as a mentor three times in her decade with the program.

Cohen’s most recent mentee, Ummi, came to NIU from West Sumatra. Purwanti, who joined him a year ago, just succeeded in publishing her research in December.

“What we do is help them take their rough draft, and usually it’s a very rough draft of their article, and we refine it,” Cohen says. “We clean it up. We beef it up. We give them readings. At the beginning, it’s always reading, several dozen articles to read, on their topic. They can have a hard time finding resources that support their topics, and the sources they do have are oftentimes really old.”

He covers everything from the basics, from how to download manuscripts from academic journals and creating annotative bibliographies for the stacks of readings he gives them, to the harsh realities of research.

“While we’re going over their papers, I am saying, ‘Oh, you need more resources here,’ or, ‘You need to add another paragraph here,’ ” he says. “One didn’t have enough data. I said, ‘You don’t have enough for us to work with. You need to go back and collect more data, and then we can get back to writing.’ ”

Meanwhile, the Indonesian visitors attend a weekly seminar to further sharpen their writing skills and their knowledge of the publication process.

During the Fall 2019 semester, those seminars were led – for the first time – by Wright.

Paul Wright
Paul Wright

“I was so impressed when I worked with these scholars for whom English is a second language,” he says. “It’s hard to write and to get published in general. Academic journals are so competitive. To do that in a second language is such a challenge.”

Just imagine, he adds, hearing that “you’re doing great work. But you just have to publish it in German now.”

Wright’s six workshops covered general techniques for writing and publishing as well as conversations on how to fit that process into their careers along with tips on thinking strategically about choosing collaborators.

The group get-togethers also allowed the international visitors, who mostly came from different universities and spent most of their time working independently, to “bond, get to know each other and build friendships among themselves. It was a really rich and intense experience.”

NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor became involved with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies a few years ago, when Acting Director Eric Jones invited him to conduct team-building activities for campus visitors in the Philippine Youth Leadership Program.

“It was a perfect fit. I pulled in Jim Ressler and Jenn Jacobs, and we did some different team-building exercises with them. We had them come to our KNPE classes to talk, interact and play recreational games like basketball with our students,” Wright says.

“We focused on youth development and leadership: How does this exercise apply to leadership skills? How does this apply to other projects you’re working on? It was a really good experience for me, and they’ve asked me to do it again this spring.”

He was happy to accept the subsequent invitation from Jones to deliver the PKPI workshops.

“It really has been interesting for me to learn about the expectations and pressures on young scholars in other countries,” Wright says. “These are things I was aware of, because I do a lot of international collaboration, but I haven’t worked with anyone from Indonesia previously. The culture in Indonesia and the culture of higher education in Indonesia were new to me.”

For example, he says, Indonesian universities are now mandating collaboration among researchers who are accustomed to working independently.

“In the United States, collaboration is such a part of our culture. We’ve been doing that a long time. Most American doctoral students came up in an environment where that’s the norm,” he says. “That’s not the norm in Indonesia, according to my students. They haven’t had that interdisciplinary collaboration modeled for them, but they are being given that expectation.”

NIU’s mentor-mentee system demonstrates those relationships well, he adds.

PKPI scholars also receive good technical support, such as proofreading from native English speakers who understand the material, the jargon and the research methods.

Gyant and Cohen check all those boxes, of course.

And for Gyant, the past director of NIU’s Center for Black Studies, the research topics presented are not only important but familiar.

LaVerne Gyant
LaVerne Gyant

Rasiah, Gyant’s 2017 scholar from Halu Oleo University, brought a research project titled, “White Depiction of Blacks in Early 21st Century Slave Narratives: A Reflection of American White Supremacy.”

Irma, who came to NIU last semester from Universitas Gadjah Mada, developed a case study titled, “The Presence of Structural Violence and Racial Battle Fatigue in American Structured Institutions: Newark and Chicago Public Schools.”

Being on the NIU campus also allowed Irma to collect local data from DeKalb District 428, and to chat with Joseph Flynn, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, about achievement gaps in public schools. She also spoke with CHANCE counselor David Seymour.

“We spent hours talking about how achievement gaps came about, how they’ve come back and the various theories on that,” Gyant says.

“She looked at data from the schools. With Chicago, she was surprised at the number of black students compared to the number of black teachers. The ratio was very different,” she adds. “She also had an opportunity to talk to students who went to Chicago schools, and they shared with her some of their experiences in the classroom.”

Gyant has enjoyed widening her perspective through the eyes of her Indonesian connections.

“We exchange information about our cultures,” she says. “It’s interesting to hear what they learn in Indonesia about the black experience in the United States.”

Like his College of Education colleagues, Cohen also has discovered mutual benefits through his involvement in the PKPI program.

“From me, they learn how to write an article, but from them, I’ve learned so much about Indonesia,” he says.

“In this article Purwanti and I just published, I learned about the Chinese Indonesian diaspora. They’ve been in Indonesia for 1,600 years, but they’re still considered ‘the other.’ That’s amazing to me, so we wrote an article about the Chinese-American and Chinese-Indonesian experience though the analysis of novels depicting their respective experiences.”

He calls it “one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had. I got to work with someone who is so phenomenally brilliant, and I was introduced to content and history that I do not normally read or study.”

Meanwhile, Cohen will reunite with some of his mentees this summer when he leads the College of Education’s first Educate Global trip to Indonesia in June.

“Because of all my past experiences with all of these doctoral students, I’m extending my stay for two weeks for guest lectures,” he says. “I’m going island-hopping and university-hopping.”