Gracia Billy Yosaphat Y Mambrasar is a postgraduate student at Oxford, one of the world’s most prestigious universities. But Billy, as he’s known, is no ordinary business student.
Hailing from Papua, Indonesia, where an estimated 28 percent of the population live in poverty and nearly one in three Papuan children under 15 years of age are illiterate, his remarkable journey from small village boy to where he is today makes him one of international education’s greatest triumphs.
Growing up, his family was poor and sold cookies at the market to survive. The Indigenous Black Papuans, the ethnic group he belongs to, has the nation’s second-lowest Human Development Index – a measure of human happiness based on life expectancy, educational standards and individual purchasing power.
Their home, made of wood and sago leaves, would flood when it rained. With no electricity, Billy studied at night using candles. When he woke up the next morning, his nose would be black, covered by the dirt from the candle’s smoke.
“My classmates would laugh at me, and I got the nickname ‘Black nose cookies seller’ at school,” he told Study International via email.
Instead of feeling embarrassed, Billy was motivated. “My parents made me proud of what I do to survive,” he said.
His father’s advice – study hard, get a scholarship, land a good job – to escape poverty stuck. Today, he is among the rare few from his marginalised community to have made it to university.
SI: Tell us more about your education journey, from high school until now.
Billy: I got scholarships at junior high school and decided to apply to my province’s top high school. To get into the city where the high school was, I had to travel for approximately 16 hours from my island. I then spent three years there in the boarding school, away from my parents in the village, to finish my high school.
I then got into Indonesia’s top engineering school, Bandung Institute of Technology, with a scholarship fro my Provincial Government. After graduating, I worked with BP (British Petroleum) as a project engineer for three years. In 2012, I was awarded the Australia Awards Scholarship (AAS) to study at the Australian National University (ANU).
Before this, I had founded a non-profit for education Kitong Bisa back home on Yapen Island, Papua. The aim is to help underprivileged Indonesian children get education assistance to give their family a better future. After graduating in 2015 and returning to Indonesia, I expanded this non-profit to a social enterprise, using a business model to help the organisation be self-sustaining. To date, we have opened nine branches, with more than 100 volunteers working to provide free education services to more than 1,100 underprivileged students.
SI: What were the biggest challenges – academically and non-academically – for you when you first arrived at ANU? How did you overcome them?
English, specifically Australian English, was my biggest challenge. I spent my first three months there understanding the unique accent. Working in a coffee shop and participating in various student activities gained me many friends, including Australians. This improved my grasp of the language and accent. My tip for non-English speaking international students is to make friends with people outside of your country to enrich your experience living abroad. Learning about different cultures and adapting will benefit your future career.
The biggest academic challenge for me was the education system. Indonesia’s tertiary education system emphasises the memorising of concepts (cramming) and then taking exams for the sake of grades. Whereas in Australia and England, it emphasises holistic understanding and critical thinking, including intensive use of writing skills.
As I was not used to academic writing, I struggled at first. However, I took courses outside my classroom to enhance my writing skills – it helped me complete my studies.
SI: What was the most memorable moment for you at ANU?
Receiving the Vice-Chancellor’s award for Student of the Year. I was recognised for being active on campus, my various student activities and contribution to different student organisations. I had volunteered at the College of Business and Economics as a student ambassador. I then started a business camp for the Indigenous Students (Aboriginal and Tores Islanders) to study business and encourage them to go to pursue an undergraduate degree. With our innovative approach, we successfully mentored the students. Some of them applied to university and this was hugely appreciated by ANU.
SI: How has your international education benefited your career and personal life?
Managing a social enterprise is about creating impact in an entrepreneurial way – something I learned from my MBA. Furthermore, my experience with various social enterprises in Australia and overseas taught me the different approaches to use in social contexts in various parts of the world.
I also became more open-minded and more sensitive towards differences, especially towards the people we help through my social enterprise.
Business partners recognised my study abroad experiences, which makes it easier to win international social projects to work on compared to my peers who did not study abroad. Apart from speaking and writing fluent English, I can also articulate my ideas fluently to foreign business partners.
SI: Why did you decide to undertake a second Master’s at Oxford?
Firstly, Oxford, especially its school of business, is developing its core approach in social entrepreneurship. When I read about this, I decided to enrol to enrich my skills in this.
Secondly, being a top-ranked university means getting admitted here is a privilege. I want to make my family and my community proud that someone from a low economic and marginalised background like myself can make it to a top-notch institution like Oxford. I want to use this story to inspire and motivate others, especially those who share a similar background as myself.
Thirdly, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I’ve read all seven books at least three times. Since reading and watching the series, I’ve been dreaming of getting into Oxford. I’m super obsessed with the scenery of the movie which took place in Oxford, and dreamed of being there one day. And now, I am here, I made it!
SI: What advice would you give to those who may be afraid or hesitant to study abroad?
Most of us in my community wouldn’t complete school, let alone making it to university abroad. Many tried to discourage me, saying it’s impossible for someone of my background. I had limited English so I had to prepare for years before going abroad to study. I applied for scholarships seven times, failing the first six times. I’ve proven that dreaming big and making it happen is possible. When we try to achieve our dreams, we shouldn’t give up until we make it.
Studying abroad broadens our horizons and expands our future opportunities. Despite any challenges you face now, if you dream of pursuing your studies, do it abroad. It will provide multiple benefits compared to studying locally. You can do it. All you need to do is just try, work hard and don’t give up until you make it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.