Wheatley is a 24-year-old Sydneysider who is spending her summer in Indonesia, participating in the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Programme (AIYEP). This venture, which aims to improve bilateral relations between the two countries, is co-ordinated by The Communications Network, and an initiative of the Australia Indonesia Institute, an arm of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
“The programme exists because Indonesia and Australia are so strongly connected,” said Wheatley, whose classroom is boundless and whose teachers are the people she meets. “Even though we’re neighbours, we come from such hugely different backgrounds. Most countries that are neighbours do share similar history and culture, just by virtue of being in the same geography. But I think Australia and Indonesia are one of the most glaring examples of disparity between the cultures…(The programme offers) an assortment of opportunities to talk to Indonesians, and bridge that gap and understanding between the two cultures.”
Her mother, who lives in Sydney, is Chinese but was born in Kediri, East Java. Her father is Australian. As a toddler, Wheatley had spent a few months in Kediri with her mother, and has been back and forth between Indonesia and Australia ever since.
While she’s no stranger to Indonesia, AIYEP was still a huge step out of her comfort zone. The programme took a group of 17 Indonesians who went through a rigorous selection process to Australia, where they spent two months travelling and getting to know the culture. These young people then met their Australian counterparts, including Wheatley, in Brisbane. Following an orientation programme in which the two groups got to know each other, the Indonesians remained in Australia, while the 16 Australian Youth Ambassadors left for Indonesia. After spending a couple weeks in the capital city of Jakarta where they visited embassies, the group moved on to Kediri where the real work began.
The Youth Ambassadors organised themselves into health, education, sports and tourism divisions; and as part of the sports division, Wheatley was challenged to use recreational activities as a way to stimulate community development.
“We got a budget and we got to do our own projects as we see fit,” she said, “We’ve been working with the whole village. We’ve been going to different schools, and organising things like soccer and volleyball tournaments… it lends itself well to the objective of the programme.”
While in Indonesia, the young Australian has been living with host families in Kediri and Wakatobi, an archipelago in South-Eastern Indonesia. This immersion in local culture is an experience that she has found most rewarding. “I think the most profound thing I’ll take away from this programme is seeing things with a new eye, and with a new sense of gratitude,” Wheatley said, “There is that great gift of being more worldly from having experienced a completely different culture, and (being) outside of your comfort zone. That will always benefit you in times where there is hardship.”
Wheatley laughed often as she talked, and even when not laughing, good cheer and a generous dash of youthful optimism still lurked behind her dark brown eyes. Her hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail, and she’s in the sensible jeans and t-shirt garb that she wears often whilst on the programme. She spoke articulately and with conviction, and with a mild Australian lilt; most present in her treatment of her vowels, and the way she ended sentences almost as though each were a question.
In her St. Clare’s College 2004 high school yearbook, the year she graduated, Wheatley is missing from the athletic and artistic pages. However, her presence did not go unnoticed in the debating and public speaking teams, and her name appeared frequently in pages for academic excellence.
Merran Davies, her friend from high school, attested to her scholastic aptitude. “Charlotte was intelligent and witty. When talking to her about a subject she knew, she could school you with facts while being entertaining,” Davies said, “She’s ridiculously smart, and honestly? I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes into politics and even manages to make a mark in Australia – if not other places.”
After graduating high school in 2004, Wheatley first obtained her degree in BA in Communications (Journalism) at the University of Technology, Sydney. Then she went straight into her Bachelor of Laws degree at the same university, which she graduated from in November 2010.
In March 2008, she began simultaneously studying and working as an online publisher for ABC Radio National. In February 2010 she added to this workload by becoming a federal court officer for the Federal Court of Australia. She explained that as online publisher, she managed audio streams and podcasts, and that she worked in both the courtroom and offices as federal court officer.
Despite being on what she described as “one of the best experiences” of her life now, Wheatley wasn’t always this spontaneous. In fact, she admitted to having a “ten-year-plan” throughout high school and university. “(But) a year into law… I decided to embrace life and take things as they come, (and) not be so planned and rigid.”
“I was a bit worried about falling in line after graduating from law,” she continued, “I didn’t want to climb the corporate ladder. I really wanted to give myself the opportunity to do something that is both eye-opening and an opportunity to travel and experience new things, but that also goes toward something of substance.”
“(In 2010), I got a link from a friend in an e-mail saying, ‘this sounds like something that would be up your alley,’” Wheatley said, “I filled the form, and then forgot about it because I was doing exams and had a million things going on…It really hadn’t processed until I found myself in Brisbane with these people I hadn’t met, and that was when I was like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? What have I signed up for?’”
Besides travelling, the young globe-trekker’s passions include music, photography and, most recently, making videos. “I love doing projects, and having that outlet to express myself creatively,” she said, “It’s (also) a way for me to make a take home souvenir of where I’ve been and where I come from…it’s a way of reflecting.”
This stay in Indonesia will leave her much to reflect on in the following months, which will involve returning briefly to Australia, before moving to London where she plans to find work in either journalism or law. But beyond that, has she made more concrete plans for the immediate future? No, not really.
“I’m just an idealistic young girl who’s finding her place in the world, and leaving herself open to whatever crosses her path,” Wheatley said, “I suppose I’m really mouldable right now.”