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Why every occupational therapy student should pursue a rural industry placement

Drone shot of a dirt road in Weipa

Every occupational therapy (OT) student benefits from their professional placement experience, which presents the opportunity to apply clinical skills, see research and theory in action, and develop independence as an OT practitioner. A rural placement in particular can be a truly transformational experience for budding OTs, one that often sees students grow their industry knowledge with a broader range of responsibilities than in a traditional metropolitan setting. For Master of Occupational Therapy student Chloe Calder, this was certainly the case.

Chloe was approaching the last semester of her degree when she completed her final professional placement rurally at the local school in Weipa in northern Queensland. Now, having completed her experience in Weipa, Chloe is ready to implement the knowledge she gained throughout her unique rural industry placement as a fully-fledged occupational therapist.

We chatted with Chloe to hear all about Weipa, her journey to studying at Bond University, and her aspirations of supporting and empowering others.

1. Why did you decide to study a Master of Occupational Therapy?

I’ve always been drawn to working in the healthcare industry, mainly because it provides a way to care for and support others. For the last seven years, I’ve been working as an administrative officer in a mental health hospital while studying psychology and nursing. This experience was fundamental to forming my professional identity, but I found myself wanting to explore another avenue within the diverse healthcare sector.

During the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was feeling restless and started thinking about alternative career opportunities. That’s when someone suggested I consider studying a Master of Occupational Therapy. After researching the degree and the role of an occupational therapist, I felt it aligned with my personal values and my goal of empowering and motivating people in a healthcare context. I was also very excited about the possibility of graduating in two years with an additional qualification, and accessing a broad range of new opportunities and career outcomes once I had completed my degree.

2. What made you choose Bond?

Growing up on the Gold Coast, Bond was always on my radar. When comparing local occupational therapy programs, I noticed that while the Gold Coast had plenty of undergraduate degree options, Bond was the only university offering a master's degree. What was even more enticing was the opportunity to pursue research studies through the Master of Occupational Therapy’s dedicated research stream.

Considering most other universities in South East Queensland are based in Brisbane, Bond stood out as the right choice. By studying at Bond, I could avoid a long commute, accelerate my degree and finish in just two years, and commence my studies earlier due to Bond’s three-semester-per-year system.

I enquired about enrolment with Bond’s Office of Future Students team, only to realise the next semester intake was in 10 days! This wasn’t a problem as the team supported me through the application process, and I was accepted just in time for the following semester, which marked the start of my journey to becoming an occupational therapist!

Occupational Therapy student Chloe Calder reeling in a small fish on a boat.

3. How did you feel when you discovered Weipa was the location of your final industry placement?

Upon finding out that my industry placement was in a remote location, I was quite nervous, but also excited. Weipa is a rural mining town in Far North Queensland, located on the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula. I had expressed interest in completing a rural placement to my placement coordinator, however, COVID-19 travel restrictions meant that the location was only able to be confirmed a few weeks before I was set to leave. I didn't know any other students, or in fact, anyone at all that had visited Weipa, so I didn't really know what to expect.

I was thankful that my placement supervisor was willing to answer any questions I had and that we were able to organise a Zoom meeting prior to my departure. I found this very helpful, and it provided me some comfort in knowing there’d be at least one familiar face in Weipa when I arrived! Overall, although I felt nervous at times, the thought of undertaking a new adventure and immersing myself in a different place, people, and culture made me excited for what was ahead.

4. How was this professional placement different to what you have done in the past?

This was the third and final clinical placement for my degree. My previous placements had both been close to home, in familiar environments and had numerous occupational therapists and other clinicians on site. Prior to going remote, I completed one placement in Logan, just south of Brisbane, in a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) clinic, and another at the Robina Hospital in an acute ward.

My placement in Weipa was based in the town’s local school and was classed as a ‘role-emerging placement’, meaning that there wasn’t currently a qualified occupational therapist in the school, and my on-site supervisor was a speech pathologist. This is generally not common in places like the Gold Coast, or locations with a higher population density, but it is the case for many remote locations in Australia. I was one of three occupational therapists in the entire town and surrounding areas, and therefore, was afforded wider scope, freedom, and consequently, responsibility, when providing community support as an OT.

Something that was unique to this placement was that despite being more isolated in Weipa, I built valuable connections with my peers. I’ve only ever previously interacted with my supervisor and on-site staff, however in Weipa I spent most weekends with teachers, staff members and my supervisor – the staff even gave me lifts to my placement site (almost daily) and to the airport when it was time to go home!

Chloe Calder walking on a beach in Weipa

5. What was the most memorable part of your remote placement experience?

The most memorable part of my placement experience was becoming a part of the local community. My time in Weipa really opened my eyes to the reality of how others live and what resources are available in rural areas, which is far beyond what I had previously been exposed to growing up on the Gold Coast. Spending time with and learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was a humbling privilege that helped me to develop a greater awareness of the hardship Indigenous people have faced in the past, and continue to experience today. The warmth and kindness of the Weipa locals was also a gift. Their willingness to help and welcoming nature filled my time in Weipa with so much joy and allowed me to form new friendships. I cherished the time spent with my new friends exploring the land, four-wheel driving in the bush and finding hidden waterholes.

6. What advice would you give students who have an upcoming rural or remote placement?

I would recommend researching available rural placement grants in advance, as you may receive financial assistance for your accommodation and living expenses. It’s also a good idea to familarise yourself with the area by doing some research, or asking for advice from anyone you know who may have visited. Don’t forget to contact your placement supervisor as early as possible to help you get ready for your time away (as there’s a lot involved!), and to prepare for the weather and pack your bags accordingly. I'm so glad I took a raincoat to Weipa – an umbrella certainly would not have cut it!

Overall, my advice to anyone considering a rural placement is… do it! My placement was beneficial for both my personal and professional development, due to the challenging yet rewarding nature of the work. Participating in a rural placement will help you grow in ways you may not expect, but will surely be the experience of a lifetime!

Having finished my final semester of the Master of Occupational Therapy in August, I now hope to gain employment in early October and put my knowledge to the test! I'm excited to join the workforce as a graduate occupational therapist and contribute to the health and wellbeing of the Australian population.

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