10 years later: A reunion, growing up, and when the common man takes action

Bahasa Indonesia translation available here

Hearing about people reuniting in an office setting isn’t an everyday occurrence. The day this story was told, I happened to be seated in Shopee Indonesia (my first business trip!) and instantly knew this was a narrative I had to pursue.

Jessica Sihite and Jeannifer Suryajaya are, respectively, our Internal Communications Senior Associate and Head of Partnerships. They go way back, first meeting 10 years ago in a high school. Jessica was a student, and Jeannifer was her educator. Through the crazy ups and downs of a typical high school experience, the two have forged a unique synergy. Speaking to them felt like I was in the midst of sisters.

Tucking ourselves away in one of the office’s cosy corners, we conversed about all things –  high school memories (including the time Jessica was placed in detention), politics, money, and the price of inadequate education. Both women also advocated bottom-up action, jealously guarding the belief that even the smallest pebble can cause the ocean to ripple.

Join our conversation below!

Jeannifer (left) and Jessica (right) at their school’s Batik Day celebration

Jocelyn Kaylee: Hey Jessica, I heard you calling Jeannifer “Miss Jean” earlier. What’s that about?

Jessica: Haha! Jeannifer was my teaching assistant (TA) back in high school, and all of us called her that. Every day was just “Miss Jean” this, “Miss Jean” that. It’s difficult to change the way I address her, seeing as how I used to abuse my freedom to call on her all the time. My friends still address her the same way, too!

Jeannifer: Well, you’ll have to try harder because I’m no longer your TA and it’s been what… 10 years? Oh my goodness.

Jes: 10 years? Really? It felt like yesterday when I was just hiding in your TA room instead of going for my detention haha!

But first, let me take a selfie: Jessica and her friends on a regular school day

JK: Wait, detention? What did you do?

Jes: Oh, it was just something really lame…

Jean: Jessica probably got in trouble for being too talkative. She’s funny and very cheerful, but her chattiness often caused a disturbance in class. Right, Jessica?

Jes: That’s actually true! I remember this teacher who blacklisted me for talking too much in class. The whole thing was absurd though… He waited till the following week to punish me for disrupting class the previous week. Who does that?

Jessica and her classmates taking extra math classes in preparation for the IGCSE finals

JK: Haha! Sounds like you were quite the firecracker. School must’ve been so fun with you around though! What other antics did you get up to?

Jean: Jessica was the kepala gang (gang leader) of her group.

Jes: No, I wasn’t! We were such nerds back then!

Jeannifer tutoring her students after a regular class

Jean: Believe me, you were. Teachers can always tell. You were definitely not nerds too. You guys were always MSN-messaging me when you were physically in class. And all of you snuck into my TA room all the time, and would stay there and chat instead of being where you ought to be. Remember how I had to physically push you out of my room? Pretty sure you guys went elsewhere instead of attending class…

Jes: Haha! Some classes were just silly. I do admit that we were rather rowdy and rebellious though. We had such rambunctious personalities that required a special patience – something that only a few teachers and TAs were willing to and capable of extending to us.

Jeannifer was one of those TAs who was always there for us. She would respond to our questions after school hours, even if they were personal and had completely nothing to do with school. She was very accepting of us, and would spend hours hearing us out without making us feel demeaned or judged. So naturally, our ears were most open to her.

One for the books: Jeannifer and her students, including Jessica, on their Bali getaway/grad trip

JK: That’s an amazing testimony. What do you make of that, Jeannifer?

Jean: Well… it’s humbling to hear that. All I wanted for my students back then was for them to graduate and be good. I didn’t realise they would take to heart what I did for them. My heart is suddenly brimming over with gladness, because it seems like Jessica has really grown up now.

Switching roles: Jeannifer as a high school student, in attendance with her principal and fellow Indonesian students

JK: Funny what time can reveal, huh? By the way, I’m curious. Jessica mentioned that only a few of the teaching staff paid special attention to her and her friends. Do you have any afterthought about the education system in general, since you were on the other side of the system yourself?

Jean: That’s a tricky question. For now, my answer would be that the relationship between education and money is very real. Although… it’s also very unhealthy and damaging to the wider society. It’s a problem that I don’t know can be fully resolved.

Education as a right and privilege: Jeannifer and her classmates experiencing the comfort of a structured education system

JK: Hmm, it’s interesting that you mentioned education and money in the same breath… What’s the relationship?

Jean: You see, the school I taught at, which Jessica attended, was an international high school. It charged higher school fees, and that translated into more resources for developing better curriculums, hiring quality teachers, building a better infrastructure et cetera.

The inverse is also true. Many public schools charge significantly lower school fees, but have to get by with average teachers, problematic curriculums and limited facilities. The school experience can be extremely different for someone attending an international school and someone attending a public school.

Pulau Miosindi, Papua: Jessica with local children (aged 4-8) who, at the mercy of a poorly-invested education system, hadn’t had any teachers for months

JK: That’s a pity and a painful reality.

Jean: You’re absolutely right. And a huge part is because not all families are able to afford high school fees. Unless there is monetary intervention, say a scholarship or sponsorship, most children of lower socioeconomic statuses (SES) remain where they are with limited intellectual stimulation, curriculums that haven’t been well thought through and worst of all, stifled potential. It’s a vicious cycle that can perpetuate through generations, and the appalling income gap here in Indonesia doesn’t help as well. Discrepancies in education levels become inherited sometimes.

Kampung Passo, North Sulawesi: Jessica taking a leaf out of Humpty Dumpty’s book and teaching the local children simple English through nursery rhymes

JK: Is anyone doing something about this?

Jean: If you’re asking about top-down efforts… let’s just say it’ll take years to figure a feasible solution, since everything that’s top-down has a very wide ripple effect. I know of common people and organisations who have huge hearts for children and education though. Bottom-up efforts often work better here in Indonesia, and lives change because the common man takes action.

Kampung Waisani, Windesi District, Papua: Jessica and fellow volunteers bringing education access closer to the students of SD YPK Immanuel Munggui (an elementary school)

JK: “Lives change because the common man takes action” – I like that. Is there something either of you would like to do to change this?

Jes: Yes! Me, me!

JK: Haha! Ok, Jes, tell me more. Why does education for lower SES families matter to you?

Jes: I guess my first mission trip to Yogyakarta changed me. My dad, who’s a pastor, took me there to dispense first-aid and comfort those affected by the earthquake. It was year 2006 and I was barely 14. Even then, I could tell that there were some differences between myself and other teenagers, and the greatest was that I was literate and many of them weren’t. I want to do something about the literacy issue, especially because I’m in a relatively better position to do so, you know? In the case of the children I met, it wasn’t just that their families were of lower SES; the remoteness of the city and lack of access to major education hubs played a huge part, too.

More blessed it is to give than to receive: Jessica distributing donated goods to devastated children together with fellow volunteers from NGO Yayasan Indonesia Sejahtera Barokah

JK: That’s an incredibly keen observation, particularly for a 14-year-old. What do you plan to do about your concern?

Jes: I have a general goal I’m working towards, and that’s setting up my own non-governmental organisation (NGO). As Jeannifer mentioned, lives change because people care and people do something about it. I’ve seen that for myself when I was serving with an NGO called Save The Children. I only have one life to live – I don’t want to waste it on frivolous pursuits; I want to give young children a better shot at life.

Jessica with her colleagues at the Dutch Embassy in Indonesia

JK: You’re amazing. I like that you’re deeply compassionate and aren’t sitting on your hands. Is there anything you’re already doing to pull closer towards your goal?

Jes: Why, thank you. Yep! After working with Save The Children and talking to people about my plans, I realised that it’s crucial to have wide networks. Mainly to spread the word, to participate in outreach, and to fund projects. With that realisation, I’ve gone on to work where the people are – international authorities like the Indonesian Dutch Embassy and big companies like Shopee. I’m also honing my communication skills, so I can deliver my NGO’s message precisely and creatively when the day comes.

Grad trip to beautiful Bali: Jeannifer as the invited chaperone for Jessica and her classmates

JK: You inspire me, Jessica. Jeannifer, you have a look on your face. What’re you thinking?

Jean: Haha! You caught me. I’m wondering what happened in the time that Jessica and I haven’t spoken as much. It’s like she’s suddenly all grown up, so filled with convictions and no longer just floating around in life. I’m happy for you, Jes.

Jes: Thank you, Miss Jean… I still have a long way to go though, you know that right?

Jean: Yes, I do know that. Just proud of you.

A warm welcome: Jessica feeling welcomed and energised on her 2nd day of work, courtesy of her Shopee HR colleagues

JK: Being able to hear conversations like these is one reason why I love my job. Let’s conclude here, so you ladies can catch up privately? Jessica, any words for people who have dreams that are only dreams as of now?

Jes: Start by turning your imagined dreams into written goals. When you take the word “dream” out of your vocabulary and replace it with “goal”, you’ll be able to see your paths and options more clearly. Even if you have a full-time job that isn’t directly related to your goals, develop yourself and your skills within that role. You never know what’ll come in handy in future. And if you aren’t in a role that will help you at all, try getting into a role that will. Take online courses, get a Master’s degree if you can, revamp your CV and put in the effort that’ll get you to where you want to be.

Jeannifer heads Shopee’s Partnerships team, and ensures favorable terms with our payment partners. Here she is photographed with the BCA (Indonesia’s largest bank by network) Board of Directors and Shopee CEO Chris Feng

JK: Wow. You’re very mature, Jessica. I’m learning a lot from you. I can’t wait to see the unveiling of your NGO! What about you, Jeannifer? Anything you would like to say to our readers, or perhaps your other students who may have followed us to the end?  

Jean: I hope all of you are doing well. What Jessica said is true – just get out there and try. I’ve personally tried several roles before arriving at where I am. And I’m not done yet. Try different roles without being a jumper. Millennials get a lot of whack for switching jobs too often. It’s true; don’t do that. In every role you’re occupying, have a good mindset and count your blessings. At the same time, set deadlines for areas where your personal and professional goals overlap, and know when enough is enough before you decide to leave.

Most importantly, build your plans block by block. Understand that that’s just the way it is, so you won’t get prematurely discouraged when nothing seems to be moving. Work on it and give it time. You’ll get there.

Thank you, Jeannifer, for being so reassuring. And thank you, Jessica, for sharing very applicable advice with us! This has been a great conversation. For more, watch this space or follow our author Jocelyn Kaylee Neo on LinkedIn. Till next time!

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