Photo By: AAUW
Jeremiah Hassel, Features Editor
Picture a hard but peaceful life in the island nation of Indonesia. You just went through law school and earned a position as a judge in the federal government. From there, you earn a position on the Supreme Court! Life is only looking up, your career seems secure, and you’ve made a living for yourself. Suddenly, you move to the United States with your new spouse, rebuild your career, and find yourself working for the mayor of a major city and for the governor of a state. How do you adapt to the new culture so quickly?
For Niken Carpenter, who currently serves as the executive assistant to Erie Mayor Joe Schember and liaison to refugees and immigrants for the city, the answer was simple: a master’s degree in project management from Penn State Behrend, earned in 2016.
Carpenter’s impressive journey began back in Indonesia, where Carpenter attended the University of Indonesia, earning a law degree and obtaining a ‘sarjana hukum’, the equivalent to an American Juris Doctor, an American doctorate in law.
After graduating, Carpenter worked her way into the ‘Mahkamah Agung’, the Indonesian Supreme Court, where she served for 12 years.
While Carpenter served, she met her current husband, Alan Carpenter, originally from Waterford, Pennsylvania. Carpenter applied for a spousal VISA and, a year later, was granted one, with the help of the Indonesian Supreme Court.
Upon moving to the United States and Erie, Carpenter began a master’s program at Penn State Behrend, majoring and earning a degree in project management.
Entering this program, Carpenter was awarded the 2015 Career Development Grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the first woman from Erie county to do so. This grant, when paired with her job as a staff member at the Erie County Public Library, allowed Carpenter to complete her program without taking out any student loans.
Carpenter also had the unique opportunity to teach Asian cultures at Mercyhurst University during her time at Behrend, serving as an adjunct faculty member for a semester. This position led Carpenter to a membership with the Indonesian American Society of Academics (IASA), a program conceived with the goal of improving educational and health conditions in Papua Indonesia. Carpenter was able to use her Behrend education to supplement this work with IASA.
When Mercyhurst cut funding to their programs and experienced budget cuts, Carpenter was able to relocate to her current positions as the executive assistant to Erie Mayor Joe Schember and liaison to refugees and immigrants for the city.
As executive assistant to the mayor, Carpenter is responsible for arranging meetings, travel, and scheduling events for the mayor, receiving phone calls and visitors to the mayor’s office, and submitting payroll for the mayor and his staff among other administrative duties. As liaison to refugees and immigrants, Carpenter connects such individuals with the mayor and the services offered by the city of Erie to make the city a more welcoming place, as per the Certified Welcoming Erie effort, which Carpenter leads as a part of the mayor’s vision.
“The city never had this position before, so I am the first one,” said Carpenter. “That means I have to start something new, which is raising awareness of what’s going on in the refugee and immigrant community, making sure that the city understands the impact of why we have refugees and immigrants in this area. What are their challenges? What is the benefit to having them? What is their contribution to their community?”
In addition to her daily duties, Carpenter also serves as commissioner of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (GACAPAA). Working as commissioner of GACAPAA, Carpenter performs similar tasks to that as liaison to refugees and immigrants, with a focus on the Asian Pacific communities across Pennsylvania.
Aside from her executive positions, Carpenter also heavily involves herself in public service, serving as the social media administrator of OneTable, a group interested in promoting understanding and goodwill between those of varying faiths, and as president of the Erie branch of AAUW, which seeks to empower women through education and philanthropy. Carpenter also serves on the advisory board of Mentari – Human Survivor Empowerment Programs, Inc., providing consultation to the director of the organization and working to place Indonesian victims of human trafficking in safe homes across the country with her expertise of both Indonesian culture and law.
“Nobody knows the challenge unless you’ve been through it. People can say, but then if you’ve never experienced it, you wouldn’t know,” said Carpenter. “My friends and my fellow refugees and immigrants, their experience and my own experience, that’s the one that inspired me. This is the thing that I want to do.”
An advocate of service, Carpenter encourages members of the Behrend community to involve themselves in the local Erie community, pursuing their interests in whatever ways they are able. She is a firm believer in loving the work one does, encouraging others to find something enjoyable in order to maintain the motivation to do it.
Happiness is also an important factor to Carpenter, and she encourages others to have faith, believe in themselves, and to lead happy lives.
Carpenter currently lives in Erie with her husband but is prepared to go wherever the path of life should lead her.
“You will never know what’s gonna happen. Back then, I thought, ‘Well, I have a settled career in Indonesia. I’m a judge. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life until I retire as a judge.’ But then, something happened. I got married, and I had to move here. It changed my life, so you never know,” said Carpenter. “It’s all about adventure. Life is an adventure, so whatever happens, happens.”