Alumni – Joel Backwell, class of 1998

Joel Backwell, class of 1998

Then: Subjects in Year 12: Indonesian, Legal Studies, Chemistry, Specialist Maths, Maths Methods, English.

Now: Regional Director, Inner Metropolitan Melbourne at the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.


“It could be the best thing you study. Learning Indonesian has opened doors and made my life more interesting.”

Pak Joel spoke to our Year 11 & 12 Indonesian students on Wednesday 23rd March. The purpose of his visit was to enrich the curriculum by sharing insights about the country while speaking in Indonesian.

Pak Joel loves Indonesia deeply – the language, the culture, the people and the diversity – and it all started at Belmont High School in the 1990s.  He credits his Indonesian language teachers with bringing the language to life at school. Joel said, “Indonesian could be the most important subject in your schooling because of the relevance and importance of Indonesia, being Australia’s closest neighbour, and the interaction between our countries on a global scale”.  He also believes that the challenge of learning a second language and a new grammatical system is a benefit for students’ learning skills generally.

Having grown up in Breamlea, on the outskirts of Greater Geelong, Joel said “my world became bigger” after taking up a three-month Indonesian exchange student placement. He lived in Bandung on the island of Java with a host family, made loads of friends and fully immersed himself into the rhythm of life in this town of over 2 million. He maintains these relationships to this day and shared many stories about the loving togetherness of Indonesian culture.

“Get outside your bubble. Reach out and build relationships with others in Indonesia because you’re learning the language. This could take you places.”

After Year 12 at BHS Joel studied at Monash University, doing a double degree in Arts/Law with Indonesian. He incorporated approximately one and half years of Indonesian exchange programs into his six years of university.

Your intrinsic motivation helps you when things get hard. My guiding principle was to spend as much time as possible in Indonesia. This shaped my choices during university. I aimed for scholarships and exchange opportunities and applied to work at law firms that had offices in Indonesia, deliberately positioning myself to work and live there.”

Fast forward to his  time as a young lawyer in Melbourne, and Joel went to Indonesia to work as a team member representing the Bali 9. He described this 10-year period as “life-changing” as it focused him on what really matters in life. For him this has meant helping people in need, supporting human rights and making society a better place for everyone, which drives him now as a senior public servant. Pak Joel talked in depth about the outcomes, the law, geopolitics and the effect the experience has had on him.

“You have a voice, power, influence…use it. You have a responsibility to use your voice.”

A number of other roles in my career have stemmed directly from Joel learning Indonesian, in particular Trade Commissioner to Malaysia and Executive Director, International Education Division in the Department of Education and Training. In the latter he was able to set up a student exchange program for Year 9 Victorian students to spend a month in Yogyakarta, including in homestay, a program that was launched by the Deputy Premier, Minister James Merlino, at BHS in 2018.

Nowadays, he yearns for another visit to Indonesia but while the world restarts post-COVID, he bides his time working to make Melbourne the best city it can possibly be -he notes diversity as a key component to this! He relishes the opportunity to use his language skills and attends Indonesian cultural festivals when possible.

During his visit to BHS he gifted the legal reference books he used to represent the Bali 9 to the Indonesian Department, along with some Indonesian music cassettes and comic books from his personal collection. The students are lucky to have these genuine resources available to them.

Year 12 students reflections on the visit:

The most memorable thing to me was how he was talking about all of his experiences in Indonesia and how valuable the Indonesian language is. It felt very motivating to keep going with the language. It was very inspiring to keep continuing Indonesian.

 I realised that Bahasa Indonesia is more than just the language and includes so much more. I also realised how much learning a language can impact your life and how things can flow on from each other, creating so many opportunities.

It made me realise that there were even more opportunities that I thought if I continue Indonesian; Indonesia is such an important country especially to Australia yet so few people know much about Indonesia let alone its language! It also makes me want to visit Indonesia as it seems like such a great country to visit or even live in!