Risa Santoso

PROGRESS ISchanging norms

An eye-opening chat with Risa Santoso, Harvard Graduate School of Education alumna and Indonesia’s youngest university chancellor.

Photographed in Malang by Irene Barlian

Risa Santoso reading a book

Why do you believe higher education is so important?

I always believe that education opens doors to new opportunities. My first job, being the assistant advisor to the Chief of Staff in the Republic of Indonesia (Kantor Staf Presiden), would have not been possible if I did not continue my studies. [It’s] not only that the classes increase our skills and broaden our knowledge, higher education can provide us with a community of people that want to learn together, create progress together, and make an impact together.

Are there challenges to being a young woman in higher education? Are there benefits?

I think the challenge for me is being a woman and being relatively young in comparison to others with the same position. Having the highest position in the institution becomes harder because most of the lecturers and staff are older than me. Being a woman adds to that, especially when having disagreements with older male staff.

“higher education can provide us with a community of people that want to learn together, create progress together, and make an impact together”

On the other hand, I feel that people tend to be open to women whenever there are problems in the workplace. That is an advantage because it is easier to find the root cause of the problem and find its solutions. This is extremely important in a complex institution like higher education where a lot of people have to work together.

We love how you’re all about challenging the old paradigms of learning institutions. Can you tell us about a specific initiative you’re proud of?

I am currently trying to change the HR system from being “hours-based” to “output-based.” It was really challenging because people are used to the old system and each division’s KPIs are not very clear yet. Creating change is hard. However, when we want to create progress it is inevitable. We just have to push through, progressing towards the goal that we set.

Do you find that you get treated differently than your male colleagues?

Being a female has always had its stigmas. I was once given feedback to “keep my emotions in check” because I disciplined someone due to a project not done properly. When a female exerts authority they are branded as “emotional,” yet when male colleagues do something similar, they are revered as having a “strong character,” [being] “assertive” and “disciplined.”

What’s your secret to staying motivated?

When I realized that my work affected other people’s lives positively, I became motivated to continue working even when I am tired. When you care about the people you are working with, hard work becomes easier.

What are your goals for the future?

I think impact is a word that is close to my heart. In order for me to create a positive impact in my community, I would need to have a thirst for learning, and have the power to execute my ideas. Creating constant improvements in the campus is one that I would focus on in the short term. I believe that progressing a step a day will create a compound effect, where there is a lasting impact in the long run.


Irene Barlian, @irenebarlian Jakarta, Indonesia

Progress is shades of expressions.

“Progress means a timeless state of mind to continuously evolve in the process of finding the authentic voice–at the physical, mental, or spiritual level.”

Irene Barlian

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