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ACU occupational therapy student at work in Vietnam.

Hope in action as OT students visit Vietnam


In Vietnam, where occupational therapy (OT) is still young as far as health professions go, practitioners need to be extra mindful of the needs of clients and their families. So when ACU academic Natalie Roche led a small-but-resourceful group of OT students on an overseas placement in Hoi An, she knew they needed to tread carefully. 

“Occupational therapy is still an emerging practice in Vietnam, so there’s a real need for careful collaboration and capacity-building,” says Natalie, a Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at ACU. 

“The students get exposed to OT in a completely different environment than they’re used to at home, and they learn that what we see as best-practice in Australia can differ elsewhere depending on cultural values.”

Backed by the Commonwealth Government through the New Colombo Plan (NCP), the two-week overseas placement had a distinct focus on culturally-sensitive practice. Rather than a one-off tour, the short-term international study experience was designed as part of a sustainable program with ACU’s partner, the Vietnam-based not-for-profit, Children’s Hope in Action (CHIA). 

“As part of the preparation for the trip, we talked a lot about how, as OTs who study and practice within western-based models of care, we sometimes need to put some of that aside in a changed environment, especially when the resources and the familiarity with allied health is not the same,” says Natalie, who has led several occupational therapy placements with ACU students. 

“It requires an open and collaborative approach, where we are learning from our partners – the staff, the volunteers, the clients and their families – and at the same time, we’re helping them to better understand what allied health can do for the children and the wider community.”

On the second day of the tour, the four students met with their clients’ families, discussing the children’s favourite activities and setting some goals for the placement. With several families in the one room at the same time, as well as a significant language barrier, it was a challenging experience. 

“It was just a completely different way of working clinically,” says Natalie, who has more than a decade of experience as an OT practitioner.

Two ACU OT students work with Vietnamese children

“That experience of being put out of your comfort zone, thinking on your feet, needing to be very flexible and adaptable, staying calm and really going back to basics, these students will reflect back on it as such an important learning experience. It was challenging, but challenging in a safe and supported environment.” 

Getting hands on

Tyla Petrie, who is currently studying a Bachelor of Occupational Therapy at ACU, says she valued the opportunity to “jump right into the practical aspect of OT”.  

“It was all hands-on deck and the other students and I were grateful for the opportunity to assist the CHIA volunteers,” she says. “[It] greatly increased my confidence in planning and implementing one-to-one paediatric therapy sessions with minimal assistance from supervisors.” 

During the placement, Tyla worked with a young client whose main goal was to improve his basic dressing skills. 

“Over the two weeks I worked with him, we incorporated consistent dressing practice into his therapy activities with the volunteers,” she says. 

Within a week, the client went from needing hand-over-hand assistance when doing up buttons, to dressing himself independently without prompting.   

“He was thrilled with this improvement and so proud of himself, which was beautiful to see,” says Tyla, adding that the experience had helped her to confirm a long-term goal to work in pediatric therapy.  

“I absolutely loved working with the children at this organisation. It has motivated me in my studies and has made me excited to explore a future career in this field of OT.”

A valued experience 

The team at Children’s Hope in Action were equally pleased with the outcomes from the placement, saying that staff had learned and exchanged skills, and clients had made rapid improvements thanks to the work of students. 
  
“We are sure we can continue to apply these ideas to each child at CHIA and this will be of great benefit to each child’s physical development and day-to-day skills, such as building strength and improving their social interaction,” says CHIA’s general manager, Nguyen Thi Dung.

Smiling Vietnamese child and ACU OT student.

Before the recent in-country placement, ACU had worked closely with CHIA through the pandemic years, with students involved in a range of virtual telehealth programs in OT, physiotherapy and speech pathology. 

Repeat trips to Hoi An are being planned for future years, says Natalie Roche, with an application for additional NCP funds in progress. 

She says it is incredibly rewarding to be involved in overseas study tours, seeing firsthand the benefits it provides to students.   

“That really is why we’re here as academics and educators, to help students to be the best they can be, so that when they graduate, they can have a positive impact on the people they work with,” Natalie says.  

“A short-term immersion in a place like Vietnam can have a huge impact, and that goes for the kids who make progress like going from lying down to sitting up, giving them increased independence and greater potential for participation, but also the amazing impact it has on everyone involved. 

“We are so grateful for the people we met in Vietnam, the generosity of what they shared and everything we learned from them. It’s a two-way learning experience and something that will stay with us all for a long time.” 

Keen to have a positive impact through a career in occupational therapy? Explore the options.

Find out more about the New Colombo Plan.

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 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS registered provider: 00004G | PRV12008