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International students find new direction in Coffs Harbour


Content team
14 September 2022
A woman stands in front of a glass edifice with the Southern Cross logo in the background
Occupational Therapy student Pema Choki

Jiaqi (Sophie) Shen had never heard of occupational therapy until she went on a whirlwind trip backpacking around Australia. A chance conversation and some Google research led her to consider this growing health discipline as her next career move. Not long afterwards, she applied for a Bachelor of Occupational Therapy at Southern Cross University in Coffs Harbour, a city she had visited twice on her backpacking travels.

“I worked in marketing for five years in China. My background is in business but I didn’t like the jobs because of the pressure,” Sophie said. “I thought, what could I do to change my career? But at the time I didn’t have any idea. So, I had a two-year gap year travelling around Australia.”

“This course is meaningful and helps others in their life,” Sophie said. “I want to do what is nice for others and also meaningful for myself.”

Sophie is one of three international students to receive a Destination Australia scholarship to study occupational therapy (OT) at Southern Cross University’s Coffs Harbour campus. The Australian Government scholarships are valued at $60,000 over four years, offering both domestic and international students the opportunity to study and experience living in regional Australia.

Scholarship recipient Yuhui Ding also decided to embark on tertiary studies while backpacking. Yuhui had been living in Broome on a working holiday visa for two-and-a-half years when she began researching jobs that would allow her to work both in Australia and China. She decided OT was the course for her.

“I want my life to be happy. And people keep telling us that if you are willing to help others, it can bring you happiness. This degree can help others,” Yuhui said.

Meanwhile, fellow OT student Pema Choki, originally from Bhutan, decided to make the sea change to Coffs Harbour after working in Brisbane for three years. “Coffs Harbour is the perfect mix of a city and the country,” Pema said. “It’s right next to the beach which is really nice.”

Pema said she likes going for walks along the beach and hiking to the top of Muttonbird Island.

Similarly, Yuhui said she enjoys the atmosphere and environment of living in a regional area. “I’m from China and my city is always very crowded. And sometimes if you are in a city, it’s very hard to calm down and focus,” Yuhui said. “Coffs Harbour is quiet and the atmosphere is good for studying. The environment here is also very good. We have mountains, we have oceans and we have forest.”

Sophie said the scholarship allowed her to commit to a four-year degree. “It has given me the confidence to study for four years,” Sophie said. 

Yuhui said she would not be able to afford to study in Australia without it. “It means a lot,” she said.

The students are partway through the first year of their course. “It’s fun,” said Pema. “I haven’t started my pracs yet but I’m looking forward to it.”

Helping clients with their day-to-day activities and assisting them to be more independent was an attractive part of the job for Pema, who plans to work as an occupational therapist after graduation. “It’s something really different from other health professions,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yuhui said she found studying occupational therapy challenging at the start of the course but now feels confident in her abilities.

“At the beginning, I felt like I couldn’t do it because there were so many things I needed to remember,” she said. “I think you just need a plan and if you are struggling with something, just ask for help.

“All the tutors are very nice. If you ask them questions, they are always willing to answer you. Now I feel like I have the confidence to pass.”

Occupational Therapy is a diverse field of health practice. Occupational therapists adapt environments, activities or equipment to enhance participation in everyday tasks, assisting people of all ages and abilities to do what they need and want to do at home, work, school and in the community. Job prospects are robust. More than 96 per cent of Southern Cross Occupational Therapy graduates were employed shortly after graduation, according to Graduate Outcomes Surveys 2019-2021.

The Southern Cross Bachelor of Occupational Therapy is a four-year, professionally accredited degree taught in purpose-built laboratories in the new Health Sciences Building on the Coffs Harbour campus.