While Sam O’Brien’s chose to apply for the NSLI-Y Indonesian Summer program in 2018 on a whim, his decision impacted his academic and professional goals far more than he could have anticipated as he submitted his application. When he applied, his knowledge of Indonesia and its language was extremely limited; he admits knowing little more than that Bahasa Indonesia used the Roman alphabet. However, he was eager to experience something completely different from his upbringing in rural New Jersey and wanted to see more of the world. With his interest in foreign languages, NSLI-Y seemed a natural fit.
His NSLI-Y experience has played a pivotal role in his academic and career path, and Sam has returned to Indonesia several times. First, he returned in 2019 to intern with a government affairs journal, an opportunity which was funded by his university and he believes he was able to obtain due to his language skills. While he was there, he researched and published a paper on a health condition common in Indonesia, which has sparked his passion for public health. Later, Sam got the opportunity to earn a grant to work with an Indonesian NGO, the 1000 Days Fund, which helps train community health workers and provides counseling to mothers in rural and remote areas of the country during the first 1000 days of their child’s life. In the past two years, the 1000 Days Fund has trained over 9,000 community health workers and conducted over 125,000 in-home malnutrition screenings. These experiences have culminated in Sam receiving a Fulbright grant to carry out infant and maternal health research in the Nusa Tenggara Timur province in Eastern Indonesia upon his graduation from Dartmouth College with a degree in Government on the Pre-Medical track. Sam credits his NSLI-Y experience with making all of these opportunities possible.
These aren’t the only lasting impacts that NSLI-Y had on Sam. He notes that he still has a very strong relationship with his host family, even a few years after his program. While he admits that he was a nervous about living with new people, his host family “did an amazing job welcoming me into their lives and introducing me to so much Indonesian culture in only six weeks.” Sam looks forward to seeing his host family again shortly upon his return to Indonesia. He also has fond memories of a trip that his cohort took to Pulau Seribu, an island chain north of Jakarta. His cohort slept in cabins on the beach and stayed up late singing songs with their instructors.
Sam credits his NSLI-Y experience with improving his language skills and helping his confidence when communicating in a foreign language. His surprise at how happy locals were to see him speaking Bahasa Indonesia helped offset his anxiety about speaking a foreign language. While he does not use his language skills much while in the United States, he has felt more confident speaking in Bahasa Indonesia on his return trips to Indonesia. Even if he does not use his language skills much in the US, he does continue to use the skills of independence, empathy, and open-mindedness that he believes NSLI-Y helped him develop.
Finally, Sam encourages alumni to maintain connections with the people that they knew in their host country. He acknowledges that being awarded a Fulbright scholarship would never have been possible without the immense support of a number of people throughout Indonesia, whether that was helping him to find opportunities in the country, vouching for him, or providing a source of comfort and stability.