top of page

ACICIS Series: Zak Wheeler

Updated: May 20, 2023


Ambassador Zakky brazenly took Jakarta with both hands (Photo: Zak Wheeler)

I speak to you personally, as you are a living organism - a whole beast. The things you showed me were astonishing, the people you hosted, both locally and only for a brief period like myself, were full of character and without you I feel empty.

When I lifted off from Sydney in late-December I didn't know what to expect and I left Australia woefully unprepared - both financially and socially - and yet together we found a way.

I landed the day before New Year’s Eve and unlike the others in my ACICIS cohort I did not join the Facebook page, nor did I wiggle my way into the subsequent group chats that spawned from students sharing their programs, placements or accommodations. I was on my own and comfortable with it. Knowing the living was cheap and the people (supposedly) friendly I lifted whatever anxieties might have wiggled beneath my skin and allowed myself to float recklessly into your arms.

Touching down on the day before New Years gave me just enough time to make connections for the day itself (Photo: Zak Wheeler)

See, I began my degree at the dawn of 2020, and therefore had nothing left waiting for me at RMIT upon my return. My degree was over and in fact I was forced to jerry-rig the system in order to accommodate the meaty 24 credits that the exchange demanded. But it was worth it, because while over there I made memories and friends beyond my wildest expectations.

The ACICIS program was a daunting prospect, costing thousands and promising only a placement and 'intensive' language courses at the host university, Atma Jaya. Arriving there after mingling with the locals for a couple of days in the intermarry period between landing and coursework starting, I'd made some friends, and angered others. Of the latter was Herman, who I thought was a friend but in actuality he was a tour guide.

These professionals make their career out of exploiting the foreigners, or bule, landing amongst them harbouring blissful naivete. Prior to budgeting my cash, I gave him $90 for his work and wished him to never return. After beginning the coursework, I spent copious amounts more, eventually bankrupting myself and plunging into a world of cheap thrills and haggling.

Within the course I met other Australians whose accents sounded foreign in the lifetime I'd lived between December 30th and January 2nd. Among these were Lily Kristanto, Sofia Jayne, and Drew Buckley, who are now all working with me on The Swanston Gazette as either contributors, editors, or both. It was my job to get to know others from RMIT, but also from many other universities across Australia taking part in the program, for I was a self-nominated Social Media Ambassador for the program. Networking was my job but building up my followers was my mission. It was what kept my fire burning in the already sweltering heat and humidity of Indonesia's capital.

Some of the same people I met on this exchange are now working on the paper or otherwise, including Drew Baker (centre left), & JSOC President Lily Kristanto (right) (Photo: Zak Wheeler)

Across the first two weeks at Atma Jaya I will not deny - I learnt almost no Bahasa Indonesia (the local language). Barely enough to pass the language test at the end of that first fortnight I must admit... I spent too much time socialising, meeting others in the same position as me, many of whom had already begun their relationships via the aforementioned group chats which I had yet to penetrate and honestly never did. Did this hold me back? I did not let it.

Eventually I'd gotten my name out there enough as the humble, bumbling Instagram man, obsessed with seeing his numbers grow. My reputation preceded me, and did I ever fall into infamy? Perhaps, as noted by my steadily declining base following my return to Australia - but that's beside the point.

What I realised while I was over there in those first two weeks was that this, for me at the very least, was what those cornballs across the internet would call a social experiment - and boy did I squander any learning I could've possibly absorbed for the long-term while in uni. What I did not skimp on was the cultural values I grasped, along with the flourishing social life inherent in being on an international exchange with 90 other students who barely knew each other.

This little social experiment lead me to being examined by locals (Photo: Zak Wheeler)

Every night, whether it be with the locals or the Aussies, I became a yes-man to every invitation I was given. Looking back on the time I spent in Indonesia, there wasn't a weekend besides that first one over New Year's that I actually spent in the city of Jakarta itself. Life went by so fast during the program that I didn't notice that until I was unfortunately close to the date on my Qantas return ticket.

Spending my degree primarily in lockdowns with online learning perhaps propelled me to advance the social at the cost of education, and that wasn't helped when I realised instead of doing journalism work during my placement at Voice of Indonesia, the government-owned broadcaster, I was first and foremost a PR guy selling the idea of the country to people that looked like me. While this led to many excursions to a whole lot of tourist-y hotspots close to the city's CBD, I felt more could've been done in the four weeks I spent among storied journalists who'd spent their lives making a difference wherever they worked. Which led me to grabbing each and every one of their Instagram handles - hoping for a follow-back.

Every weekend I was doing different things, be it attending weddings... (Photo: Zak Wheeler)

...or getting a mandatory tattoo in Yogyakarta (Photo: Zak Wheeler)

Again, maybe I was unique in this skewed vision of the experiment, but the ACICIS program for me was LinkedIn come-to-life - although I barely connected with anyone on LinkedIn which severely hampers the immense networking I achieved. Instagram, I've been told, is not a professional nor is it a mature platform for making lasting business relationships.

So what do I have to look back on now that it's all over and I've started my career, officially done with the university stage of my life? Well, I have a lot of memories, several crippling debts, a couple of new friends... but most importantly, I have an increased understanding of myself.

Through whatever hardships I thought I faced, cultural differences I tackled head-on, and regretful decisions I made in the moment (because everyone makes a few over the course of six weeks), the monolith that stands in my rear view is a reflection of myself. I look at that guy every day since coming back, inspecting the differences in understanding, maturity, and weight - because everyone loses a couple kilograms in that place - staring back at me.

Maybe it's the same for others or maybe my experience was entirely self-serving. I'm not sure, but I respectfully don't care either - and that brings me back to my biggest takeaway: the personal growth and preparation in becoming an adult that the experience provided me with. Regardless of how much better my resume looks as a result of having a slot dedicated to studying and working abroad in renowned institutions, everything is always going to boil down to the interview that the thing provides when I hand it up to prospective employers.

Maybe I took the trip as more of a holiday, but I still showed up at my placement every day - which is where I met Gera Kazakov (Photo: Ani Hasanah Mubarok)

And when I talk to my would-be future bosses, they may not see a worldly man whose travel abroad moulded the picture-perfect representation of humility and understanding. What I do hope they see instead is a guy that knows himself and is ready for whatever else the world has to throw at him. I couldn't have sold myself like I can now without the trial by flames that the ACICIS Global Exchange put me through.

I couldn't recommend enough leaping at an opportunity like this, or any other exchange that peaks your own personal interest - because I can guarantee once you land wherever you end up going, it won't be what you're expecting.

To put it simply: the trip wasn't what I was expecting (Photo: Zak Wheeler)


The ACICIS Professional Practicum runs for six weeks in Indonesia, including a two-week intensive Indonesian language study and industry-led seminars at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta, followed by a four-week supervised industry placement. The program runs from early January to mid-February each year.

Applications for the same six-week summer exchange I went on are open through to June 5, 2023 here.


bottom of page