By Jessie Huang
I am currently volunteering with the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, as an optometry support officer at Pham Ngoc Thach University of Medicine in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Our Optometry School, which opened in October 2014, is a joint initiative between the university, Ho Chi Minh City Eye Hospital and Brien Holden Vision Institute Foundation.
After completing my Bachelor degree at UNSW, I left Sydney to work in a private practice in Dubbo, NSW. The main reason for the move was to work under the tutelage of an experienced optometrist. Once there, I faced what seemed like an enormous learning curve. Day by day I improved but it took about 12 months to really settle in. Being surrounded by friendly and welcoming people—colleagues, neighbours, soccer and touch football team mates and Rotaract members—certainly helped.
After two years, the lure of Sydney was strong. I missed family and friends, the arts and cultural scene and the ocean.
I was fortunate to secure a job at the Centre For Eye Health. The centre is a not-for-profit, specialist ocular imaging and diagnostic centre, servicing patients at risk of eye disease. The best part about working at the centre was the fellow staff—friendly, respectful, intelligent, collaborative and possessing an insatiable desire to learn.
We saw interesting pathology every day and had an extensive range of specialist imaging equipment to capture and investigate further. Other highlights included our weekly team meetings, working with the resident consulting ophthalmologist and presenting at our CPD events. After almost two years, personal reasons brought about relocation, this time to Melbourne.
I spent the first month unemployed. At first, I was happy and I justified it as a mini-break from work. I soon became anxious about my shrinking savings account and escalating boredom. When a corporate chain offered a job, I was initially grateful.
At the time, the chain had no permanent positions available so I mainly did relief work in a different practice almost every day. It was a good way to discover parts of Melbourne that I never would have seen otherwise. I worked in the CBD, up north, down south, the south-east and east. From this job, I learned two things: flexibility and the fact that corporate work was not for me.
Looking for a change, I started a new job at the Australian College of Optometry. The college provides low-cost services to socio-economically disadvantaged people in Victoria, and education and training to students and optometrists, and conducts research.
Patients attending the college can be challenging, and many are elderly and have limited English skills, but the work is interesting and rewarding, and pathology is common. The patients truly appreciate your assistance.
While at the college I realised my passion for undergraduate teaching. Working with students keeps you on your toes; you have to be vigilant, knowledgeable and efficient. Students ask great questions and you either have to know your stuff or where to find it quickly.
This brings me to where I am now.
I’ve been living and volunteering in Vietnam for nine months. My day-to-day schedule varies a lot, and my role as a lecturer and course co-ordinator means I am involved in many projects.
A few lines of advice truly resonate with me:
Be a ‘Yes’ person and embrace every opportunity.
Surround yourself with excellent people.
Reflect often - what kind of optometrist do you want to be?
Learning takes time, mastery takes longer.
I’ve had to relearn Microsoft Excel to analyse results for a research project, develop and review proposals, create an inventory for our equipment, advise on the planning of future program delivery and of course, facilitate learning.
The best part of the job is the teaching. It is challenging to plan lessons and also great fun working with the students who are all intelligent and enthusiastic. It’s exciting because they will be the first optometrists to become qualified in Vietnam and I know they’re already thinking about how they will help improve the lives of people in their communities.
I am also humbled by the efforts of my co-workers at the Pham Ngoc Thach Medical University and Brien Holden Vision Institute for navigating this unchartered territory of optometry education and development of the profession in Vietnam.
Personally, I feel that volunteering with the Australian Volunteers for International Development and BHVI has been a great experience. I get lots of support from the Vietnam team. Through BHVI, I was also given an opportunity to participate in an online course to improve my skills in teaching and connect with teachers from other developing nations.
Living in Ho Chi Minh City is so different from home. It can be noisy, smelly, congested, humid and hot.
There are so many positive aspects, too. People are friendly, the food is delicious and cheap—eating from a food cart is still a novelty—and life is easy because as in any big city, you can find almost anything you need. Another bonus is the travel. There are many beautiful sites to visit in Vietnam. My favourite so far has been Sapa, a mountainous region in the north-west.
I feel fortunate that early in my career, I had opportunities to do many different things and work in different places. I believe that being a young optometrist is a unique time of our lives. It can be whatever we choose to make it. It’s up to us to chase our goals.
The Pham Ngoc Thach Medical University is running a ‘Book Drive’. If you have any books or equipment you would like to donate, please contact Carina Trinh at email@example.com or me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on optometry in Vietnam, visit the Brien Holden Vision Institute website.
The Australian Volunteers for International Development program is an Australian Government initiative.
Young Optometrists NSW