Charlene Chua from University of Melbourne with a few of her teammates from the The 2021 International Summer School in Transnational History, Group 4, working on the slides for the presentation to the organising committee, 2021.

The 2021 International Summer School in Transnational History, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Since 2018, the Universitas Gadjah Mada has hosted an annual International Summer School in Transnational History, bringing together students from across Southeast Asia to live and study together in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In 2018 and 2019 SHAPS was able to send small groups of students, together with Associate Professor Katharine McGregor, to participate in person in this wonderful program. Following the cancellation of the program in 2020, the 3rd International Summer School in 2021 chose to directly engage with the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the program to move entirely online, with the focus ‘Resilience and Control: Transmissible Disease and the Rise of Modern Society.’

Undergraduate students Allegra McCormack and Charlene Phua, who attended the Summer School from Melbourne, report below on the experience.

Running for three weeks in August, the Summer School program sought to examine the COVID-19 pandemic within a broader historical context and re-examine the history of disease through myriad factors such as art, colonialism and the climate. It questioned how different states had approached pandemics in the past and how these experiences shaped the current COVID-19 policy. The program also explored the role of memory within health crises and how specific, dominant narratives emerge from a multitude of experiences. The program speakers included historians from across the region and beyond, including SHAPS Professor Andy May and Associate Professor Katharine McGregor, as well as two of our postgraduates who are researching historical pandemics: Ravando Lie and Mary Sheehan.

The subject matter of the course was echoed within the social aspects of the program. Group activities, museum trips and movie nights were relayed virtually through Zoom. As students, we lived within the events discussed in classes, commiserating over changing government restrictions, sharing fears and even occasionally joining class from a vaccination centre. This provided an additional dimension to the coursework, as the impact of health policy and social responses was experienced directly. The program’s coursework culminated with group presentations from the students on a research topic of their choice.

Over the course of the program, we were given the opportunity to learn how individual and seemingly unconnected factors can be intertwined and directly compound to significantly worsen existing disasters. This new understanding has not only changed the way we think about disease transmission but has also encouraged us to think more laterally about the intersecting, and possibly obscured, factors behind national and global emergencies.

Allegra’s Experience

My group investigated the role of film during the COVID-19 pandemic through a close reading of three films, from China, Indonesia and Australia, each conveying a different message in response to the pandemic. Days and Nights in Wuhan from China focused on the state’s response during the early days of the Wuhan outbreak. Posi+if from Indonesia emphasised the real dangers of the pandemic and the importance of individual responsibility to prevent the spread. Lastly, an ABC parody from Australia poked fun at the continual government lockdowns and growing rivalry between the states.

We considered how these films offered, for both state and citizen, a space for expression that could cut through the misinformation surrounding the pandemic. Through the appeal of entertainment and story-telling, film can inform, inspire, persuade, or provoke an audience. Our analysis was undoubtedly enriched by the international collaboration of the group members from countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, each bringing a different perspective and offering insight into the different ways the impact of the pandemic is understood and the government responses justified.

I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity to participate in the transnational exchange of ideas during the pandemic. For the majority of the program, I was restricted to traveling 5km from my home, which created a very narrow space to study and live. Despite these restrictions, I was able to travel virtually to Yogyakarta and experience a truly international educational experience — something very rare during the pandemic. I feel I have learned not only from the lectures but from the interactions with my fellow participants. The opportunity has impacted the way I engage with new information; I have become more aware of my own implicit biases and specific perspective. Going forward in my studies I’m excited to continue to take part in these collaborative learning environments and to continue to challenge my assumptions.

Charlene’s Experience

Being a Media and Communications student, I had little experience in doing historical research. I became more interested in History this year after taking the subject Modern Southeast Asia (HIST20034). The prospect of attending a History summer school was slightly daunting at first, but it turned out to be an eye-opening experience, and one that honed my skills in research and critical thinking.

It was difficult for our group to get down to choosing a research topic, simply because there were so many developments affecting the region and there was so much being covered in the program itself for us to explore. Some ideas that came up initially included exploring how the arts were impacted by the pandemic worldwide, as well as how different communication strategies were utilised by different governments during this pandemic.

Finally, our group decided to explore the role of geography in Indonesian and Singaporean governance during the time of COVID-19. We were curious about the fact that Singapore and Indonesia, which are such vastly different spaces in terms of size, had used different measures to deal with the pandemic. Our group began to wonder how much size and population density had to do with this.

As I’m from Singapore, I was mainly in charge of conducting research on how Singapore responded to COVID-19 and whether its size was an advantage or disadvantage. This was a time-consuming process, involving sifting through various types of information, ranging from research journals to primary sources such as statements from Singaporean leaders to the press or on government websites; however, this was hugely worthwhile – I realise now that I really expanded my knowledge about my own country through this work. It was an especially interesting experience to analyse case studies, such as how migrant workers were handled in the Singaporean context.

Beyond that, I’m also grateful that I got to learn more about Indonesia, including through my interactions with my Indonesian teammates. By the end of the program, I was able to identify similarities between the Indonesian and Singaporean approaches to handling the pandemic. Both countries had a multi-ministry task force, but the size of each country meant that the priorities of each task force were slightly different. Vaccination might be easily achieved in Singapore, but far-flung areas in Indonesia can pose a geographic challenge for vaccination. It was also fascinating to hear other perspectives from teammates from other countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

All in all, it was not only a valuable opportunity to improve my understanding of the region and my research skills, but also a great way to network, and I look forward to more opportunities like this in the future!


Allegra McCormack is a third-year Bachelor of Arts student majoring in History. She is interested in gender history, specifically within the context of colonialism and its aftermath. 

Charlene Phua is a third-year Bachelor of Arts student majoring in Media and Communications. She is interested in how media shapes society and the way we think – especially when it comes to the rise of new media platforms – but also in global affairs. She is also interested in the links between history, media and society. 
Feature image: Charlene Phua with a few of her teammates from the 2021 International Summer School in Transnational History, working on the slides for their presentation to the organising committee. The students are (L to R) Charlene; Tam Ha from Vietnam; Willy Alferius from Indonesia; and Nikko Jay Ramos from the Philippines