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Students experience real international relations in Timor-Leste

News story

Sixteen international relations students landed in Timor-Leste for a weeklong, whirlwind study tour last November, taking their classroom learning to poverty-stricken villages, charities and international embassies, and learning the art of diplomacy along the way.

“We think it’s critical that students understand that they can apply what they are learning in the classroom to real-life situations,” says trip leader and Curtin international relations lecturer, Chris Ryan. “When working in international relations, or as a diplomat, you need to know what’s going on [down] on the ground – not just from your experience of learning in the classroom.”

Occupying half the island of Timor, Timor-Leste went through a period of political unrest as it came under Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999. In 2002, Timor-Leste became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century. According to Oxfam Australia, Timor-Leste has a population of 1.13 million people of whom 41 per cent live in extreme poverty and almost 30 per cent have no access to safe water.

During the international relations study tour, the students visited the Australian and American embassies and delivered a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program to two primary schools.

For Ryan, one of the most poignant moments of the trip came when his students were walking down the street two days after they had taught children how to wash their hands as part of the WASH program.

“A little girl … came up and tugged one of my students on the shirt,” Ryan says. “She couldn’t speak a word of English, but she rubbed her hands together the way the student had shown her two days before … That impact, that effect, is extraordinary because, I think that if you can reduce water-borne diseases in a country like Timor through a simple program like that, then we have made a great impact.”

The study tour also joined up with Ryan’s charity,, to help deliver water tanks to a village.

“Children still die from water-borne diseases every day in Timor,” Ryan says. His work at aims to provide water resources, namely water tanks, to poverty-stricken communities in Timor-Leste so that they have clean water for everyday use.

For international relations student, Sarah Clare, the experience was a powerful reminder of the impact international relations and aid can have on a community. “Only when we were on the ground delivering water tanks and sanitation packs to a local village did the transformative potential of such actions seem tangible and real,” she says.

In addition to their aid work, students attended lectures from the Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister’s office and from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

“DFAT wanted to brief us on the current crisis, the critical standoff between Australia and Timor in relation to spying allegations and the disagreements about oil and gas [ownership] in the Timor Sea,” Ryan says. “There has been a lot written on the issue and [DFAT] wanted to give us Australia’s side of the story. The lecture at the Prime Minister of Timor’s office gave us Timor’s side of events, and so the students learned how to be diplomatic and see both sides of the story.

“It was really important for students to understand the art of negotiation, diplomacy and how developing states operate compared to the Australian system. When I’m in class lecturing, talking about developing states and the role of Australia, they can imagine what’s happening, but when they physically see it, it all comes together.”

A second highlight came when the students attended the Timor parliament. There they were acknowledged and given a round of applause from the Prime Minister and the speaker of the house.

For student Caitlin Hogan, the experience has helped her set some new goals.

“The trip provided me with foresight into where I want my international relations degree to take me in the future,” she says.

Marked as a success, another international relations study tour is being planned for 2016, allowing a new group of students continue their work.