A lot of people already know how difficult it can be to ask for directions or order food in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. Now, imagine working through physiotherapy and exercise physiology treatments with the locals.
Two third-year La Trobe students, Malia Corrigan and Tobias Geary, did just that when they took part in a volunteer placement in Vietnam, an experience they say was as rewarding as it was challenging.
Getting out of your comfort zone
As part of the course requirements for their Bachelor of Applied Science/Master of Physiotherapy Practice, Corrigan and Geary completed a two-week physiotherapy placement with GGC Volunteers in Danang, Vietnam.
They travelled around the area with a group of La Trobe students, visiting local orphanages and clinics and treating local children with physical and mental disabilities.
‘The first place we went to was quite a shock,’ says Tobias. ‘It was very hard to get used to seeing so many kids in such tough situations, but it really gives you a different perspective on how things run in other places.
‘Especially if you’re someone who doesn’t like going out of their comfort zone, it’s good to see how you react to being in a new situation and how well you’re able to adapt to that different situation – whether you can still use the skills that you’ve learnt.’
Volunteering in a foreign country can be highly rewarding, but it’s also fraught with basic daily challenges as you struggle to come to grips with local languages and customs. Often, you find yourself engaged in elaborate pantomime with friendly locals in an attempt to communicate even the simplest messages.
According to Malia, however, the things that seemed the most difficult at first led to major learning opportunities.
‘I found myself being quite wary of the cultural differences in Vietnam and, in the beginning, was quite worried about doing or saying the wrong thing,’ she says.
‘However, everyone was very understanding of our language barriers and I found it interesting to learn and incorporate new cultural differences into my approaches along the way. Obviously it was still challenging, but it was made easier with the understanding and acceptance of the people we worked with.’
Taking the reins
The students were given a lot of independence during the placement, which was initially daunting for Malia, who didn’t have any previous practical experience. However, by the end of the two weeks she’d gained a suite of valuable technical and personal skills.
‘I think the most important thing that I learnt is how to individualise my actions and management strategies depending on the patient – their culture, beliefs, access to resources, and social environment,’ she says.
‘While the things we learn in classrooms and textbooks are essential, I learnt that I can’t just have a head full of memorised information, but need to be flexible and innovative in my thinking and doing processes’
I’ve realised sometimes you learn the most important things when you are thrown in the deep end and challenge yourself to apply your knowledge in real life.’
Making a difference
According to Tobias, one of the best things about volunteering programs such as these is the impact on the community.
‘On about our second day there, the mother of one kid we were working with was speaking to the supervisor, and it seemed like she wasn’t that happy,’ he says. ‘But by the end of the session she was so thankful for what we’d done, and was asking how long we are staying and if we could stay longer.’
‘Another day when I was working with a kid who was quite switched on, and he was really enjoying the treatments and seemed to be having a good time. It feels really good to come out of a session like that, knowing that the kids enjoyed having you there.’
For Malia, watching some of the most affected children complete treatment exercises was a real highlight of her time in Vietnam.
‘One child in particular was always smiling and laughing despite her situation, which really opened my eyes. She was always determined to do the physiotherapy activities and definitely brought brightness to an environment that we all initially felt quite confronted by.’
A once-in-a-lifetime placement
Both Malia and Tobias are quick to recommend overseas placements to other students.
They say it’s an excellent way to challenge yourself, put your knowledge and skills to the test, and find out how much you still have to learn.
‘The entire experience was daunting to begin with, but also exciting and became an invaluable educational and life experience for me,’ says Malia.
‘I was able to learn beyond what is in my course syllabus and experienced things that will be useful to me not only in my university and career life, but also in my personal life.’
‘It truly was life-changing, and I was able to learn a lot about the world and myself along the way.’
Find the right placement for you by checking out what’s on offer at La Trobe.