The Experiences of Indonesian Students Pursuing Art Education Abroad

From a full-time illustrator in Spain to a Jakarta-based animator, we gathered six Indonesian creatives to share their experience of pursuing higher education in the graphic design and visual arts field abroad.

Disclaimer: The interviews included were conducted in March 2022.

Year after year, numerous Indonesian high school and undergrad graduates are considering their options in furthering their studies. With the total number of Indonesian students studying abroad at above 55,961 individuals by March 2023 according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, it’s worth looking into the reason Indonesians, especially those that want to study graphic design and visual art, pursue art education beyond Indonesian borders. In this article, we asked a few Indonesian designers and artists why they chose to study abroad.

“It was more of a personal choice for me,” Tasia started. Tasia Sugiyanto is visual artist who is now in the early days of her master’s degree at University of the Arts London - Central Saint Martins (UAL CSM) majoring in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industry. She has always wanted to study abroad but without her parents’ approval, she eventually completed her undergraduate degree at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). With her love of learning and her dream to study abroad, a research degree seemed the perfect fit when the opportunity presented itself. 

Her application for this MA program was somewhat spontaneous. Although her parents disallowed her from studying abroad for her bachelor’s degree, they actually pushed her to pursue her master’s degree outside of Indonesia. With the blessing and support of her parents, she immediately looked for a course that would suit her. She wanted to make sure that she would get the most out of the course she applied to and avoided courses that were too heavily reliant on online classes and webinars which she found to be unsatisfactory. When she came across the webpage for her current programme she was immediately intrigued. After contacting tutors of the course, she applied right away. The length of the course also contributed to choosing a university in the United Kingdom as opposed to other countries as masters' degrees in the UK typically run for only one year. However, she still maintains that her reasoning still boils down to wanting to experience studying abroad and taking the chance when an opportunity presents itself–a contrasting reason to Galuh Indri Wiyarti Martinéz.

Galuh is an Indonesian illustrator and graphic designer based in Málaga, Spain. She attended Leeds Arts University (LAU) for her undergraduate degree majoring in illustration, graduating in 2018. Her main reason for choosing to study abroad had been the quality of education that the UK promotes especially in a course like illustration which wasn’t as well developed in Indonesian art schools. Cyntia Taniawati Agata and Diandra Wardhana felt similarly. Cyntia also attended LAU in the same course two years after Galuh. She felt that not only did the quality of education speak for itself but she was also curious as to how the creative industry works in the United Kingdom. She is currently finishing up her illustration and graphic design internship in Jakarta after graduating in 2020. 

Diandra has just wrapped up her MA in Art Direction at UAL last year after getting her bachelor's degree in illustration, graduating just a year after Galuh. For her, not only was the quality of education important but the prospect of being able to stay and build a career in the United Kingdom after university also played a big role in why she chose to study abroad. However, that was easier said than done with the intricacies of UK visa requirements and the ebb and flow of the British creative industry. Diandra did return to Indonesia briefly between graduating from LAU and beginning her masters degree at UAL, working for several businesses and clients in the country. At the moment, Diandra remains in the UK under a graduate visa which allows her to stay and seek employment in the country for up to two years.

On the other hand, Brenda Christie Muliawan’s choice to study abroad had less to do with employment prospects and was much more influenced by her high school years in Singapore. Brenda studied animation for her undergraduate degree in LAU as well, enrolling the same year as Galuh, and is now a full-time animator at Percolate Galactic, Jakarta. Her time in Singapore as a high school student had been highly competitive but she didn’t want that to be a big factor in her university experience. She wanted to take her time and enjoy learning animation and had heard that studying art was more relaxed in England.

Of course, maneuvering being an Indonesian creative studying abroad comes with its own set of pros and cons. “I always feel like there’s a plus point as an immigrant,” Nadine Hanisya said. Nadine is an Indonesian artist and one half of Tiny Studio, an art and design studio that she runs alongside her husband, Ratta Bill. Unlike the other artists and designers we interviewed who chose to study abroad for university, Nadine had immigrated to France when she was in junior high school with her whole family. There, she pursued photography in high school and then majored in fine arts for her bachelor’s degree at École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy (ENSAPC). She found that although her tutors would try to view and treat all students the same, they still struggled to see Nadine on par with the other students who were born and raised in France. When she implemented cultural aspects from her Indonesian heritage, her tutors seemed easily impressed but at the same time she had to toe the line between being appreciated and exoticised. 

Although Diandra agrees that there is a very real possibility of having your work exoticised, she seemed to have observed an opposite reception by tutors of work with cultural aspects. Though she hasn’t experienced this personally, she has had some classmates who had trouble with this. Some tutors viewed making art about one’s cultural background as a cop-out and Diandra has even seen that some students who pursued cultural aspects in their work were marked down. She found herself slightly defeated. “It is what it is,” she said. She has since learned to shake off that line of critique and focus more on the work she wants to make and finds fulfilling.

For Galuh, making work that involved her culture and her experience as an international student triggered a negative reaction from her tutors. Her and Brenda had a self-initiated joint project in their final year at LAU where they created a short animation outlining their experience as international students. They included some critiques of how international students were treated on the whole in the country. While their classmates readily supported their project, there was some backlash from several tutors. They both found that response frustrating. “I mean that’s our right,” Galuh explained. She feels as though the reaction was disproportionate and distracted from the actual message of their piece. “We were just kind of poking at [the problem], but the reaction from some tutors was quite extreme.”


As their graduation date loomed, they had to quickly decide whether or not to stay in the country they are studying in or return to Indonesia. Some didn’t have that option available to them. Although many universities are keen to accept international students, whether or not they are able to prepare you to maneuver creative industries internationally seems to depend on a case by case basis. For Galuh, Diandra, Cyntia and Brenda who were hoping to stay and pursue a career in the UK, their alma mater hardly devoted any time to help international students retain a visa or direct them towards jobs and employers who were eligible to sponsor a working visa in the UK. At the time of their graduation, the graduate visa was unavailable. Coming back to Indonesia was a shock for them.

Cyntia, now at the end of her illustration and graphic design internship in Indonesia, feels that she would have been torn between deciding to go home or stay had she been given the option. However, when looking at job prospects and conditions alone she would have preferred to stay in England if she were able. On the other hand, she also feels that the Indonesian creative industry has made great strides. She explained that she often refers back to an Indonesian illustrators community called Ilustrasee, which has helped her understand how to build a career as an illustrator in Indonesia complete with advice on pricing as well as freelance contracts.

“You do have to start from zero,” Diandra said. While they were prepared on how to tackle the creative industry in the UK, it was difficult to apply any of that in Indonesia, where the creative industry is completely different. From building networks to corporate culture, everything was new. “In Indonesia, the corporate culture is very hierarchical in comparison to the UK,” Brenda explained. “There’s not as big of an emphasis on seniority in the UK, even when talking to uni tutors we usually called them with their first names, so it did take a while to adjust.”

For Nadine, who spent 9 years in France, her husband, Ratta, was a great help in re-familiarising herself with the creative scene in Indonesia. She hadn’t realized that the industry had grown so much in her absence. Her university course also had very little guidance on how to maneuver the business aspect of being an artist and so she found herself struggling a lot with that when she returned.

Tasia, still early in her journey as a student abroad, had initially planned on coming back immediately after graduating, with hopes of bringing something back to the art scene in Indonesia and to push for the improvement of the industry here. After 2 months in London, however, she seemed to have had a change of heart. “I was just gonna stay for one year initially, but now I think I’m going to apply for the graduate visa.” Diandra has similarly opted for the graduate visa in the UK now that it’s been made available after completing her course at UAL. Having done her bachelor’s degree in the UK, she didn’t really have a robust network of creatives in Indonesia. She had to start from zero in terms of getting her career started in the Indonesian creative industry. However, she did have existing freelance clients that she could fall back on and, though it was slow-going, she was able to build her network from there.

When asked if she will ever consider coming back to Indonesia after her graduate visa runs out, Diandra explained that she was initially dead set on pursuing a creative career in the UK but now she finds that the UK creative industry seems to be stagnating and work is hard to come by. So even though she took up the graduate visa, she plans to build her clientele up until the visa runs out and move away from the UK but will likely still stay somewhere in Europe. She does, however, mention that Indonesia’s creative industry seems to be on an exponential rise and so there is still a possibility of her coming back to Indonesia. “Maybe 10 years from now though, not too soon,” she laughed.

Galuh also feels similarly. She used to be determined to work in the UK after graduating. However, after having the opportunity to work in Indonesia and now being based in Spain with her husband as a freelancer, she found that where you end up being based isn’t as consequential nowadays with the kind of work that she does. She stresses more importance on building your community and clientele online through social media platforms and online portfolios

When each of them was asked if they had any advice for other Indonesian creatives thinking of or hoping to study abroad, there is an agreed consensus that prior research is essential. Brenda, who was keen to attend the first university that accepted her application, looks back and regrets not fully considering that decision. “Be patient,” she said. She advises to take your time to research not only the course but also the tutors, the university as a whole and your expectations of the course. Tasia also pointed out art schools in the West are really keen on student contributions in class, “They want you to speak up and they want you to say something if you disagree with your tutor.” Nadine feels similarly. She also mentioned how art schools in France love for students to be politically involved and have that channeled in your art.

Reflecting on the experiences noted above, it’s clear that everyone’s reasons for studying abroad vary. Some study abroad because it aligns with the dreams they want to achieve, some may feel that the education available in Indonesia doesn't match up with their expectations, and some end up studying abroad because of family.

Even with all the challenges that come with studying abroad, Tasia still believes that it is a precious experience. Diandra feels similarly. She elaborated that attending university abroad really broadens your horizons and, although studying itself is important, there are many things to learn from this experience beyond the classroom walls. When considering studying abroad, make sure you have completely deliberated your priorities and understand how to build your practice and career in the creative world. With comprehensive consideration, there are many benefits to studying abroad. Everyone’s needs and motives for studying abroad vary and are unique to each individual. Although studying abroad is very compelling and may help you with both personal and professional achievements, pursuing higher education abroad is not an exigence for every student with different needs and fields of study.

About the Author

Kireina Masri

Kireina Masri has had her nose stuck in a book since she could remember. Majoring in Illustration, she now writes, in both English and Indonesian, of all things visual—pouring her love of the arts into the written word. She aspires to be her neighborhood's quirky cat lady in her later years.