Students' passages to India

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Study programme gives students cultural sensitivity, resilience and patience abroad, writes Usha Ramanujam Arvind

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In the late sixties and seventies, a steady influx of medical professionals from India helped boost the flagging Australian healthcare system. Since then strong bilateral collaborations in several mainstream and allied medical fields have spawned multiple opportunities for partnership.

Building on this, the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Heath Sciences (FHS) has initiated a novel project, whereby senior students are offered an opportunity to gain practical skills overseas.

Aimed at providing an enriching learning experience, while fostering global citizenship, “Passage to India” is a unique study programme launched in 2010. Since then a number of students have travelled to various institutions in India to learn about its allied health industry. Students are involved in health promotion, community outreach, exercise program planning and delivery, as well as observing and shadowing local health professionals from a range of allied fields.

The project has already won Sydney University laurels from the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) for “developing new, international perspectives on health care as well as providing a different frame of reference through which to view the Australian health care system”.

“Children living with physical disabilities in regional and rural India are helping to teach our senior students about India’s therapeutic practices,” programme director Dr Elaine Ryan told Indian Link.

“Through FHS Abroad (FHSA), we hope to embed internationalisation within the curriculum by providing senior students across undergraduate and graduate entry masters programs with the opportunity to gain international experience in a developing country as part of their degree,” project coordinator Charlotte Scarf explained.

“Developing cultural sensitivity, resilience and patience, the programme is certainly a life-changing experience,” she acknowledged. Some even report new career goals in international public health and community-based rehabilitation, she added.

As part of the curriculum, students are offered two electives, involving academic study of global health and development issues and a four to six week placement in a health sciences field, with a community-based organisation in South or Southeast Asia.

Students who take part in FHS Abroad volunteer the knowledge and skills they have gained from completing at least one year of degree programs in Bachelor of health science (majoring in subjects as diverse as Psychology, Nursing and Human Movement), Applied Science undergraduate degrees (Exercise and Sports Science, Exercise Physiology, Diagnostic radiography, Occupational Therapy, Physiotherapy and Speech Therapy) and Postgraduate degrees (Exercise Physiology, Developmental Disability, Occupational Therapy, Orthoptics, Physiotherapy, Radiation Therapy, and Rehabilitation Counseling and Speech Language Pathology).

Besides India, the extension opportunity is currently available in, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia. The overseas component is being managed by two private agencies, Antipodeans Abroad and Projects Abroad. Antipodeans Abroad is an Australian company, specialising in student volunteer travel, while Projects Abroad is a global company that caters for all types of volunteer travellers worldwide.

Since inception, 81 students have completed the program and another 60 are expected to do so this year. 22 students are expected to travel in the next June/July cycle. Currently, students can either travel in June/July or November–January. Intake has steadily increased, particularly in the popular summer cycle.

At present, FHS has linked up with community groups, including the New Horizons Child Development Centre (NHCDC), the Society for the Education of the Crippled (both Mumbai based) as well as Amar Seva Sangram and Shine Educational Trust (Madurai based community rehabilitation and vocational training institutions for disable people) for work experience. These schools specialise in a number of disabilities including cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome and autism, and combine education, physio, speech and occupational therapy and training.

As part of their academic study program, students who undertake FHS Abroad are required to produce a pre-departure research paper on health and development issues they expect to encounter on placement and attend a briefing workshop hosted by the Faculty which includes intensive lectures and learning activities designed to prepare students for both day-to-day and professional challenges of living and working in a developing country, and to ensure their smooth return. They are also expected to participate in pre-departure training provided by the volunteer agencies. The agencies also provide students with in-country orientation sessions and 24-hour emergency assistance and support.

FHSA recently organised an information evening bringing together prospective students, staff, health experts and members from the wider community.

Addressing the gathering, Consul General of India, Arun Kumar Goel discussed further initiatives to achieve improved outcomes for faculty’s students and the Indian communities they will visit. He was delighted with the positive results so far and offered every support for building a closer relationship with FHS. Several students shared their experiences of working in healthcare centres in India.

“Overall, the event was a great first step and the guests were not only moved by the stories shared but also offered to help in all sorts ways and pledged to assist us in building strong relationships with the Indian community in Sydney and further afield,” Scarf indicated.

Professor Kathryn Refshauge, Health Sciences Dean is also set to address a number of community groups to leverage on the existing relationships.

At present, funding remains a key challenge to widen participation and improve inclusiveness. The cost of participation is high, ranging between $6000-8000 depending on agency and destination involved.

To find out more contact FHS Abroad coordinators Elaine Ryan or Charlotte Scarf: fhs.abroad@sydney.edu.au