Southern Cross University nursing student Helen Wicks is eager to be immersed in Cambodian life, health and culture when she arrives this week as a New Colombo Plan scholar.
In fact, the only thing she’s worried about is the heat. November in Cambodia sees the end of the rainy season and the start of soaring temperatures, a daunting prospect for Finnish-born Helen.
Not that she’s unaccustomed to challenges, from raising four children to working in the disability sector for many years to embarking on university study at a mature age. She is about to start the third year of a nursing degree at Southern Cross University’s Coffs Harbour campus.
Helen will spend three weeks based in the northwestern Cambodian city of Siem Reap, providing optical health support in a region where eye problems are most prevalent among the poorer population and are exacerbated by lack of access to basic care.
“You can’t change everything in three weeks, but small steps are sustainable steps,” says Helen, who has collected more than 150 pairs of sunglasses and prescription glasses, donated by the Coffs Harbour community, for distribution among children and villagers in Siem Reap.
Helen’s decision to study nursing was sparked by personal experience.
“I had thrived in the disability sector. I really thought I had found my calling and went on to complete my Cert 3 and Cert 4 qualifications,” she says.
“I was working with people aged from 18 to 60 in Coffs Harbour and I really felt that I had something to give. I was fulfilled and knew I was making a positive difference.
“But when a serious health issue led a family member to hospital for triple bypass surgery, I was able to appreciate the profound contribution and compassion of the nursing staff.
“I wanted to do more to help people and nursing was the way. I didn’t even know if I’d get into university, but my experience in the disability sector was a great help and my time at Southern Cross has been wonderful.”
Helen has completed other placements during her degree, including a stint in Broken Hill earlier this year. On her return from Cambodia in early December, she will head to Sydney to spend a week supporting people in a mental health recovery camp.
She said she was honoured to receive support through the New Colombo Plan, an Australian Government initiative that aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region.
Twenty students from Southern Cross University will travel to Cambodia for the health promotion and primary care placement, including nursing students and five allied health students studying speech pathology and occupational therapy, from Coffs Harbour, Lismore and Gold Coast campuses and online.
A separate group of 22 allied health and nursing students will spend three weeks at The Friendship Village in Hanoi, Vietnam where Southern Cross University has established a long-term connection providing health care and educational services to Vietnamese children and war veterans at the Village.
Photo: Southern Cross students are eager to be immersed in Cambodian life