Athalia Irwansjah - One in 100,000 – ANU graduates its 100,000th student

To be honest, I’ve just been really lucky. ANU has been really good to me. I was at the right place at the right time.

Athalia Irwansjah graduated with a Master of Arts Asia Pacific Studies and the unexpected accolade of being the 100,000th student to graduate from ANU.

Athalia commenced her studies at ANU in 2008 and spent two years in Korea during her undergraduate degree. She wrote her honours thesis on English education policy in South Korea.

"I taught English in Korea for a year on scholarship and then I was successful in getting another scholarship to study in Seoul for another year", says Athalia.

Athalia was born and grew up in Canberra to Indonesian parents. As a student at Narrabundah College she attended a 'Be an Asian Studies student for a day' event at ANU organised by the College of Asia and the Pacific.

"That guided my interest in realising that I can do something with languages. I was set on doing Japanese at ANU but then at Narrabundah College I was just so much better at Korean. The alphabet is so much easier in Korean whereas grammatically it is quite similar to Japanese so I was able to pick it up quite quickly," says Athalia.

Athalia, whose father is also an ANU alumnus, identifies the chance to spend a year in Asia as the biggest drawcard for her decision to study at ANU. She enjoyed the proximity of the National Library and names Menzies Library as her favourite place on campus. Athalia also participated in the Indonesian Student Society and Korean Students Association activities.

Athalia's first trip to Korea was part of a scholarship which covered airfares and accommodation. Although the town was "literally in the middle of nowhere" she did meet another ANU student who was in a town about an hour away.

"The school had about 100 students and I taught from Year 1 to Year 6. It was the first time they'd seen a foreigner. They'd had English teachers before, but of Korean descent. I have a South East Asian background and in that particular town there are a lot of migrant wives from that region. So I had to keep saying, 'No, I actually am an English teacher from Australia.'"

Overall though, Athalia enjoyed her experience teaching and recalls fondly the collegiate spirit at the school. Her principal also helped ensure that she was looked after by the canteen.

"Because I'm Muslim I don't eat pork and they put pork in everything. But the principal wanted to look after me so she had a go at the chefs in the canteen to make sure that they didn't serve me pork. So they fed me well."

Athalia has returned several times to visit her former students, including during her year studying at Yonsei University in Seoul.

ANU also played cupid for Athalia when she met her partner in 2011 at a Korean Students Association Party.  At their joint graduation ceremony, Athalia recalls "we were told that someone is the 100,000th alumnus. My partner was so sure it was him. So I was so surprised to have the phone call to hear that it was me."

Athalia now works for the Australian Taxation Office in the international engagement team as a relationship officer. She especially enjoys the international exposure she has in her role and the opportunity to utilise her Indonesian language skills during visits by Indonesian officials. Athalia believes that her international experiences as a student helped her employment prospects.

"I asked my manager how they came across me and she said recruitment gave them two people with international backgrounds and I stood out because of my year in Asia experience."

Her advice to current students is "If you have the opportunity to go overseas, take it. It really does enhance your perspective and it improves your prospects with prospective employers."

Currently, Athalia is looking forward to her family holiday to Indonesia with her parents and sister who also just graduated. "The first thing I'll eat is martabak. My favourite version has chocolate, peanuts and sesame seeds. My aunt is going to arrive at the airport with a box of martabak just for me!"

Athalia is interested in potentially returning to ANU for a PhD although not for at least another five years. As the 100,000th graduate, she has a very positive summary of her time at ANU:

"To be honest, I've just been really lucky. ANU has been really good to me. I was at the right place at the right time."


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