It made a world of difference for them

It made a world of difference for them

Australian girls coped well with village life in Tamil Nadu. Their month-long stay was constant wealth of surprises and contrasts

For four weeks, schoolchildren from several villages in Tiruchirapalli district in Tamil Nadu eagerly awaited arrival of a bus carrying 13 Austr­alian girls. Children were curious and enthusiastic also as the girls would mingle with them entertain them and educate them on various issues. The girls, students in nursing, speech pathology, occupational therapy and pharmacy of Perth-based Curtin University, had crossed the shores and reached another continent thousands of kilometres away as a part of their a fieldwork placement. 

Staying in a cluster of cottages bordering a ban­ana plantation, the students enlivened the quiet area with fitness drills in the sweltering afternoon sun and baffled cooks with their habit of spreading Nutella on their dosa.

Shanthi School, run by non-government organisation Sevai near Tiruchirapalli, educates about 1,000 children from villages from kindergarten to 12th standard. It also has a section for differently challenged children. Programme supervisor Dave Parsons said the purpose of the placement was to provide fieldwork to increase students’ clinical skills in a challenging environment while contributing to sustainable health services for communities. 

Curtin University brought students to India for the first time with  the main aim of making sustainable change by implementing programmes that are needed and setting up systems and models that could be picked up by future volunteers. 

The students were involved in educating children on hand-wash technique, nail cutting and girls’ hygi­ene and had a special focus on differently challenged children. “It’s education by empowerment, that’s what makes it sustainable. Working with the reso­urces available rather than just providing money,” Parsons said.

Dr K Govindaraju, founder of Sevai, said he was immensely grateful for the skills offered by the specialised team, especially their assessment of each child in the differently abled class which were published in a booklet and given to the school to be used by future volunteers.

Pharmacy student Sunila Rajan, 22, chose to complete her final placement in India because she was looking for a different experience from what she could have at home. “In Australia, the main focus is on two areas, community and hospital. I’m hoping to work for NGOs in the future and thought may be this could give me a taste of what pharmacy can offer.” 

Working at Shanthi School, Rajan was shown just how important her role as a health educator could be. “It’s a community-based approach, more about education and sharing your knowledge,” Rajan said. 

She said the atmosphere at the camp was rich with team spirit which helped the students overcome the challenges of living and working in a new country and adapting to the culture. “We grew extremely close as an inter-professional team and a group of new friends. The support we could give each other stemmed from mutual understanding of the occasional frustrations associated with a number of lifestyle changes. These changes opened our eyes to the extent of our luxuries in Australia and the vastness of the disparity of wealth in India,” Rajan said. 

Fellow pharmacy student Rebecca Res, 23, said it was sometimes difficult to accept they couldn’t make things perfect, but had to adapt their practices as best they could to fit the circumstances. “You realise it’s not always by the book but what’s best for that person. There are things we wouldn’t do back home, but we promote here in India because it works.” The students had come up with a phrase for when they felt overwhelmed by the challenges posed by the foreign environment and lack of resources, sighing “TII” or “This is India”. 

Res said working in a multi-disciplinary team (the group included nursing, occupational therapy, speech pathology and pharmacy students) was also beneficial. “It’s really interesting to share things about my profession and learn about other health professions, where they fit into the bigger holistic health picture when working within the Indian community.”The experience did not compare to any clinical placement she had participated in before. “India is a constant wealth of surprises and contr­asts, and the problem solving skills we developed are unique to our experiences.”

As a result, she plans to return to India at some point and experience work in a different part of the country.  Speech pathology student Philippa Olsen, 21, said the skills she had developed over the month were much broader than just clinical. The communication barrier hindered her ability to work with the teachers, most of whom spoke little or no English, but she had managed to convey strategies around speech pathology that she hoped they could use in the future.Occupational therapy student Lynne Duthie, 26, said the focus was not on individual clients but on benefiting everybody, which broadened how she thought about her practice. “That’s been challenging; having to be creative in what you do, resources aren’t great so you’ve kind of got to make things up as you go.”

A couple of days before their programme was to conclude, a teacher pulled Duthie aside and urged her to come and say goodbye to children, because they would miss the students. “That really made me think, just by playing and being a friendly face, we’ve actually touched them in a way that I didn’t realise. It builds you as a person, I think going back to Australia I’ll be a different therapist and I’ll work differently in the future because of it.” 

Speech pathologist Olivia Sullivan said the memories which stuck with her most were the people and the students’ different interactions with them.       “When we exercised, one of the staff, Maria, would copy all our moves and get in our way, but another staff member, Ghandi, would be more shy and stand behind the bushes trying to keep up.” 

Getting acquainted with a new culture also made for some amusing memories, such as the welcoming ceremony when the students, who are all vegetarian, sat down to eat lunch served on a banana leaf with no cutlery. “It was our first time eating with our hands, I remember the looks that went around while we attempted to gracefully eat with our hands and try to politely turn away the non-vegetarian dishes they had so generously cooked.”

Sullivan said the placement was a fantastic experience and she would do something similar without a second thought. “I think my experience in India has definitely played a big part in pushing me towards this type of work and will play a part in providing me with the core skills necessary for this very challenging yet rewarding work.” 

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