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A virtual assistance


A small therapy room inside a community rehabilitation facility in Timor Leste was the epicentre of the first virtual occupational therapy placement between ACU and one of Australia’s closest neighbours.

Four ACU occupational therapy students, guided by lecturer Natalie Roche and professional practice educator Amie Li, undertook a four-week online placement in June, providing health consultations for the Timor Leste community.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Government New Columbo Plan-funded Short Term International Student Experience program had to be conducted via Zoom and WhatsApp instead of in person.

But despite the almost 3,800km between the Melbourne ACU clinic, where the students were based, and the therapy room of Tibar-based non-governmental organisation Klibur Domin, the program proved to be a major success.

“As an under-resourced nation, with a long history of issues related to occupation and genocide, access to healthcare services is limited and supporting people with a disability remains a challenge for communities and workers,” Natalie said.

“This virtual experience came about to try to reconnect with our partners in Timor Leste since we last visited the country in 2019 and provide online health consultations to the service users of Klibur Domin (KD).

“So, I decided to give the virtual program a try, in collaboration with KD – who were also keen to bridge the gap between in-country visits.

“It was overwhelmingly positive from all perspectives and the students had some pretty life-changing moments working with the service users in Timor.

“The students also felt that going virtual was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and didn’t feel like they missed out on anything by not being in-country – which was very positive feedback.”

Overcoming hurdles

This was the first virtual placement between ACU and Timor Leste, so the students had to navigate several unexpected challenges.

“With the internet connection in Timor Leste being intermittent and temperamental, the students often had to quickly pivot their communication to written communication or asking follow-up questions via email,” Natalie said.

“They also sent video and picture resources to KD in printed format for them to use in the therapy room; things like videos about single-arm dressing, or how to position a child for feeding.

“The clients at KD had plenty of laughs when the students attempted to demonstrate and communicate in Tetun (the local language), which was great for building rapport and relationships with the service users, who we often got to work with over multiple sessions on their goals.”

Along with the fun of the experience came some incredibly rewarding moments for both students and Timor Leste locals.

“Our students were able to communicate with a family about how to assist their 12-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to open her hand so that she was able to hold on to an item for the first time in her life.

“This was a pretty life-changing moment for the family, because they can now keep working with her so she’s able to hold things like a cup or feed herself or play with her siblings.

“I thought the students managed the technological, emotional and clinical demands of the placement brilliantly.”

Experience of a lifetime

For third-year occupational therapy student Charlotte Fortuyn, the experience to connect with people in a foreign country was life changing.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime placement involving international telehealth, cultural differences, language differences, the opportunity to work with translators, community and clinic work, working as a team and problem-solving on the spot,” Charlotte said.

“I personally believe it would be rare for someone to be able to experience all these elements together while being a student, or even throughout one’s career.

“In the future, I would like to practise internationally. This placement gave me the opportunity to learn and practise skills that will aid me in the future. The skills and experience I gained will also help me become a more culturally sensitive person in my day-to-day life – not just in my professional career – which I am thankful for.

“The placement also confirmed that I would like to work internationally and specifically in developing countries.”

Charlotte also plans to head over to Timor Leste – in person this time – to continue her work.

“Going to Timor Leste to visit Klibur Domin and work with the people in person is definitely something on my list,” she said.

“Especially after building such a rapport with the people there, it seems like the next step. We worked so hard and were able to achieve so much; however, there were some things we were not able to do or see due to the nature of a telehealth placement.”

A return to Timor Leste

With travel restrictions slowly easing, Natalie Roche says the School of Allied Health plans for students to return to Timor Leste in person in 2023 but will continue the virtual clinic outside of that. 

“We identified the need for interprofessional education at Klibur Domin and speech pathology staff are keen to be involved,” Natalie said.

Interested in a career in allied health? Find your course.

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2022 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G