Reflections from the 2021 scholarship awardees

Each year ACEN awards eight $1500 scholarships to provide financial support for students undertaking a WIL placement in a regional or remote area of Australia as part of their university studies. Upon completion of the placement recipients are required to provide a reflection of the WIL experience which should

  • Identify the personal growth and skill development as a result of the WIL placement
  • How the ACEN Scholarship supported the recipient’s career aspirations
  • Evidence of the ability to think critically and question biases and assumptions
Occupational Therapy Placement in Charleville

Occupational Therapy Placement in Charleville

When I started studying my Bachelor of Occupational Therapy in 2019, I knew that a rural/remote placement was a requirement in my third year. “Third year,” I said to myself, “Well that’s years away.” Then, some three months ago, I was getting prepared to drive 10 hours into Western Queensland to a town called Charleville. I had never even heard of Charleville until it was allocated to me. At first, I had some concerns. How will I pay for this? Have I learnt enough to do this? Will my car even make it? Ultimately, with the support of my friends and family, I knew I would be fine, and off I went.

This was my first time in what I felt to be a clinical placement, having been at a primary school previously. I was nervous, but I was excited. I was with another student from my university which gave me reassurance and support that I would have someone who understood the experience I was having. During my placement, I saw a wide range of clients. From hand therapy after orthopaedic injuries, to oedema management, to home modification assessments, I saw what being an OT is really all about. And it made me that much more confident and happy in my choice of chosen career path.

I had the opportunity to work alongside two wonderful OTs, a SLP, a dietician, physiotherapist, AHAs, community health nurses and more. Every single person I encountered during placement was supportive and welcoming. It gave me such insight into the benefits of working within a multidisciplinary team and the importance of communication and intrapersonal skills. Not only did I experience working in a rural hospital – I also got to experience Charleville. From the Bilby Experience, to the rockpool outside of town, to the Cosmos Centre – Charleville became my home, so much so that I was genuinely sad to leave after 6 weeks.

I would say some of the key skills I developed during this placement were my information gathering and clinical reasoning skills. My supervisor was constantly challenging me to justify or discuss my intervention methods or treatment plans, providing feedback and support along the way. I frequently researched new conditions and evidence based practice to develop session plans for the clients on my caseload. This was something I had little experience doing in a real- world setting, but I feel that after 6 weeks I was really understanding the process. I also developed crucial rapport building skills and a better understanding of the public hospital system, funding bodies and processes/procedures that I might come across in my career.

This placement challenged me to reflect on my personal assumptions and biases. Prior to meeting some of my clients, I had already formed opinions about their conditions, occupational performance and function, and goals, before I even had a chance to find out who they were. This placement really showed me to treat every person as an open book, with a rich personal history and experiences. It also challenged my assumptions of what rural living and rural practice would be like. I was worried the community might not welcome me, or that I might feel uncomfortable in such a small town, but I was wrong on both counts.

Receiving the ACEN scholarship was an absolute blessing. It helped support my financially while on my placement. Being a full time student without work, I went into this placement with limited finances and a debt for my accommodation. The scholarship allowed me to pay this back in full, cover groceries and living expenses, fuel, and even accommodation on the way home. Without

this scholarship, I would have been incredibly stressed surrounding my financial situation, and may not have been able to have the experience I did, or give my all while on placement. Unequivocally, this scholarship allowed me to have the experience I did which has in turn lead to personal and professional skill development as a budding OT.

If you have the opportunity to go on a rural/remote placement, I would say absolutely do it. The experience I had was one in a lifetime and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Occupational Therapy Placement in Mount Isa

Occupational Therapy Placement in Mount Isa

I was excited to have the opportunity to experience a new environment and culture, even though I would be out of my comfort zone. A few weeks before leaving I learned that it was a project placement where I would be working with another student to develop a stroke education program for North West Queensland. This would involve a lot of research but limited clinical exposure (i.e. no caseload). I felt prepared for the research part as I had the skills and experience from completing my Honours Research Thesis. However, in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease about the fact that I was graduating at the end of the year with little clinical experience. How would I develop the professional competencies needed to qualify as an occupational therapist? Despite these concerns, I knew that I had been given this opportunity by my university for a reason and this project was important to the community. So, I was going to give it my best effort.

Now reflecting back on my ten-week placement, I can see the invaluable skills I have developed that will set me apart from the crowd when applying for jobs.

Firstly, I learnt what it meant to be flexible and adaptable. I remember in my first week when the power cut out in the rehabilitation centre. For us city slickers, this was new and exciting. However, we soon learned that this was a regular (and annoying!) occurrence for the people of Mount Isa. This prompted us to consider how we could develop stroke education programs that were not reliant on technology. We needed to think creatively to develop programs that could be used in any setting, with limited resources and diverse populations.

 Secondly, I have developed cultural awareness through participation in cultural workshops and events. I learned to question and challenge my perceptions and assumptions of Indigenous populations, and consider how they may influence my practice. I was able to talk to Indigenous rehabilitation assistants, cultural mentors and elders to learn more about their culture and history. Sometimes this was confronting as many of the historical events had not been addressed in my education. However, it also drove me to educate myself more and others on Indigenous culture and history so that I could advocate for them in my personal and professional life. This may be as simple as starting conversations with family and friends or showing a willingness to learn about my clients’ culture. This experience has sparked an interest in working with Indigenous communities and advocating for them on a higher level to address the gaps in their healthcare.

Thirdly, I have developed resilience from overcoming the numerous challenges of working rurally. Some professional challenges included responding to negative peers, poor internet, limited resources and staff. The personal challenges included being over 1800 km from home in an unfamiliar city, adapting to in a new culture, living with strangers and making new friends. The most difficult part of placement was being away when my sister became acutely unwell. I realised the importance of being open with my team about these challenges so that I could receive support. I developed resilience by maintaining a positive attitude and reflecting upon how these challenges were shaping personally and professional. I focussed on how the project was not just about my learning, but to help the health professionals and communities in North West Queensland.

I have always wanted to do a rural/remote placement, but knew that I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent, travel costs and living expenses without an income. The ACEN not only funded an incredible learning opportunity but allowed me to immerse myself in the community and surrounding towns. During my time off, I was able to explore the surrounding towns, visit museums and go on tours, attend local events like the Rodeo, volunteer at local shows and even help out with the filming of a country TV show. This gave me a well-rounded knowledge of the North West Community which helped build rapport with the participants at rehabilitation and develop resources which were relevant to the community. By the end of the ten weeks I was referred to as a local and often called upon to help orientate new students to the town. Being afforded opportunities like this was also key to maintaining a good work life balance and maintaining my mental health during a long placement. I would not have been able to participate in these events and experience North West Queensland to the fullest without the support of ACEN.

Psychology Placement in the Northern Territory

Psychology Placement in the Northern Territory

During my remote placement as a psychology student, I was exposed to a variety of indigenous clients from different cultural and language groups. This was my first-time working cross-culturally with indigenous people, and this placement allowed me to learn skills with the advice and support of indigenous practitioners and cultural support practitioners.  

Being in a remote placement taught me resilience and flexibility. It was crucially important to “roll with things” given I was in a new and unfamiliar environment. At times, it was hard being away from home – however I socialised with a number of other allied health students from different disciplines and explored the surrounding gorges, waterholes and mountains. I met some amazing practitioners and was able to learn from cases that had significant social and psychological elements and required working within a multidisciplinary team.

The ACEN scholarship has given me the skills to work cross-culturally and within new and unfamiliar environments. This has increased my flexibility and resilience as a practitioner, and I believe my learnings from placement have made me a more effective clinician.

Working within an indigenous environment has taught me to think critically and question biases and assumptions. I have learned slow down and see culture. I have learned that it is important to take the time with clients to ensure a proper understanding of the client’s presentation, and to ensure use of appropriate assessment tools and culturally suitable therapeutic modalities.

I would encourage anyone to consider going on a remote placement – as going remote can offer high quality and unique learning experiences.