From Toko Lestari to Classics at Cambridge

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  • Anniko Firman at her high school graduation from Sorghvliet Gymnasium in The Hague on July 15, 2021. She holds up an award for receiving a perfect '10' score for history, on of the six subjects in which she obtained perfect scores.

    Anniko Firman at her high school graduation from Sorghvliet Gymnasium in The Hague on July 15, 2021. She holds up an award for receiving a perfect '10' score for history, on of the six subjects in which she obtained perfect scores.

    TEMPO.CO, The Hague - “Saya mengerti Bahasa Indonesia, dan bisa bicara juga, tapi tidak sempurna.” Anniko Firman, 17, modestly said in almost accentless Indonesian that while she speaks and understands Indonesian, it is not perfect. In addition to being fluent in Indonesian, Anniko – born and raised in The Hague from Indonesian parents Johannes and Erny Firman – took seven languages in secondary school: Latin, Greek, English, French, German, Chinese, and Dutch. With Latin, it was love at first sight for Anniko. In the past three years, she has put all her efforts into getting accepted at UK’s Cambridge University, home to one of the best Classics departments in the world.

    The life of Anniko, an only child, was forever changed in the past year: Erny succumbed to Covid-19 in November 2020, just before her 54th birthday. “Mama suffered from rheumatism, so she had been taking heavy medication for that. But apart from that she was fine, and always working hard.” Anniko’s voice, usually cheerful and confident, was muted when she spoke about her late mother. “We totally didn’t see it coming. It just went so fast.”

    To make matters worse, Erny was also at the heart of Toko Lestari, a small Indonesian take-out restaurant the Firman couple founded and ran for 25 years. “She was the one who came up with the recipes and did the cooking.” More than just their source of income, Toko Lestari was also part of the family’s life. “We had so many regular customers that know me since I was little.” Johannes sold Toko Lestari not long after his wife passed away.

    The other huge obstacle came from the UK: as Brexit became official last year, Cambridge’s annual tuition for European Union students shot up to €40,000 from €10,000. “And this is excluding living expenses of about €10,000 a year,” said Anniko, whose hopes for going to Cambridge dimmed late last year.

    Latin and Greek are taught in the gymnasium: schools where only  the top 7% of Dutch secondary school students can enter. Annika graduated this spring from The Hague’s Sorghvliet Gymnasium, where Princess Amalia - the future queen of The Netherlands – was her classmate and friend. “I loved Latin from the very beginning. It’s such an elegant language,” Anniko said. She feels lucky that her Latin teacher quickly spotted her brilliance. In her second year (out of the six years), her teacher gave her a final exam to do. “I scored a ‘9’ on that.”

    Academically, Anniko is indeed a rare talent. While most gymnasium students take between eight to ten subjects, she took 14. “Actually, I was taking 16, but finally dropped two,” she chuckled. She finished with the almost unattainable final scores of eight ‘9’ and six ‘10’ . However, school is not the only thing she excels in: she swam in national competitions and did classical ballet until she was 14, when she broke her leg in a car accident. “In hindsight, that might have been a blessing in disguise, as I had more time to concentrate on my studies.”

    She did not allow the painful loss of her mother to stop her from pursuing her dream. “It is what Mama would have wanted me to do.” Barely a month after Erny’s passing, Anniko had her entrance interview for Cambridge, which she passed with flying colors. And then there was the crucial point of financing her studies. “Thankfully, I have an aunt in the US who agreed to give me a loan for the tuition. But then there is the issue of my living expenses for three years.” She knew that her family would not be able to afford the €30,000 she needs for her living expenses in Cambridge for the next three years.

    Then came the idea of setting up a crowdfunding effort through the GoFundMe site to help out with her living expenses. “When I started it on July 22, I thought that I would be lucky to get a few thousand.” This time, the stars were on Anniko’s side: in five days, she had already received €8,000. Then, on July 28, her story was published in the national daily Algemeen Dagblad, and the donations spiked. “The €30,000 was reached in less than ten days. I couldn’t believe it!”

    Anniko is grateful for the talents she was born with and her parent’s tireless support for all her pursuits. “But one thing is for sure: I worked very hard for all my achievements. Nothing came as a given.” Since she graduated in May, Anniko – unlike many of her fellow graduates who fill their summers with vacationing - has been working several jobs. She will continue doing this until she departs for Cambridge in September, where she will most likely be the first student with Indonesian roots to enter Cambridge’s Classics Department. Cambridge’s Admissions and Data Services Office confirmed to Tempo on August 9 that “there have been no applications or acceptances to Classics for applicants from Indonesia.” At the tender age of 17, Anniko has yet another trait that sets her apart from most of her peers: foresight and determination. Asked what she sees herself doing in the future, she said: “After doing Latin, I plan to do law. My dream is to be working for one of the big law firms in London.” Certainly not unattainable, given her track record.

    LINAWATI SIDARTO