When Amy first enrolled in the five-year Bachelor of Medical Science (Vision Science)/Master of Optometry, she was doubtful her ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) would be good enough for the Flinders’ program, which is not only the sole optometry program in South Australia but also one of the best in the country. Once that hurdle was overcome, she had no idea how she would pay for it.
“I was starting to get a bit stressed at the end of Year 12, thinking, how am I actually going to do this? I knew it would be a heavy study load and that I wouldn't be able to work many hours to support myself,” she says.
A first-year scholarship meant she was able to overcome the lack of public transport from home and continue living with her family, while part-time work at a pharmacy helped cover other living expenses.
However, she soon discovered there were other challenges to navigate as a first-year student.
“2018 was a year of hurt,” she says. “I felt a bit lost and I found it hard to stay motivated. My boyfriend broke up with me, the family dog died, my grandfather died, and I got really behind in my studies. I thought, is there even any point?
“But fear of failure kicked in. I watched 25 online lectures in a week to catch up, and somehow, I passed!
“Second year was a lot of learning about myself—what kind of student I should be, that I’m quite a sensitive person but that’s okay. I’m shy and find it hard to be social, so I had to force myself to go to lectures in person, not just watch them online.
“But I also learnt one of the most important things as a medical professional is to be sensitive—to listen and be able to read people. We have to be able to speak with upset, angry people sometimes, when we deliver bad news. It was a big realisation for me that I already have these skills, that I can really help people.”
In her second year, Amy swapped her part-time pharmacy job for a more career-oriented role as an optical dispenser in the optometry practice she visited as a client.
“I got brave and asked the optical dispenser who was helping me choose my glasses if they were hiring, and the manager heard from across the room and said, ‘Yes, and we're looking for someone just like you!’”
This new role gave Amy a lot more confidence—“I’ve learned so much about how to talk to people and so many skills to be the best optometrist I can be”.
It also meant she could work just eight hours a week, with more time to focus on her all-important third year of study.
“Third year is the crunch year, where either you have the skills to get through or you don’t. If you fall behind, it quickly spirals out of control. Halfway through third year is when we have to buy the optometry kit, which we use throughout our careers, so it all starts to feel a lot more real!”
But Amy’s third year—in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—turned out to be much, much harder than anyone expected.
“We went to fully online classes, with all practicals cancelled, which was ok in semester one, but semester two was supposed to be all case based learning in groups of 10, and we had to collaborate instead over Skype for the entire second half of the year. We were able to do in person practicals in semester two, but with limitations on time.
“In case-based learning, you’re introduced to all of the major diseases of the eyes—before that we were focusing on anatomy. And practicals are where you start getting into real optometry, the ‘bread and butter’ in terms of clinical skills.”
“We were able to do our clinical exams in person, but had just eight minutes to do these, so it was very high pressure.”
Amy says third year semester two was definitely the hardest
“Everything gets quite intense quite suddenly, and because we were all isolated at home, it made it all the more difficult for our cohort to make that transition.
“We were all trying to handle it alone and didn’t have the same learning support we normally would.”
Amy says the course convenors warned them early.
“They said, if you need to leave, now is the time to do it, because this will be a very hard semester, and you’re better to leave now than fail”.
“We knew we would lose roughly a third of our cohort, and you wonder if you’re going to be one of the ones who makes it or not. It can get a bit scary.”
COVID also impacted the buying of the optometry kits. The fluctuating exchange rates sent the cost to more than $7000, and because there was not the usual optometry trade show, the students had to choose one of their most expensive purchases from pictures in a brochure.
While at the beginning of the year, many students still wondered how they would pay for their kit, Amy was fortunate to receive a $5000 Student Impact Scholarship, generously supported by Flinders alumni, staff and friends. This became even more of a vital lifeline, given Amy was unable to work at the optometry dispensary from April to July, and also discovered she was ineligible for the JobKeeper subsidy because she had not yet worked there for a full year.
Amy says she did not handle the pressure of third year super well.
“But I also didn’t realise just how much of an impact COVID and being at home had. This year, I thought, wow, it is SO much easier to handle that stress and pressure when you’re all together.”
Amy is enormously grateful for the support she has received from the Flinders family through scholarships, not just for 2020 but for all three years of her study to date.
“Receiving the scholarships has made such a difference for me. They helped me transition into university life, prioritise my studies and where I was headed.
“Coming from a place of always worrying about money, it was nice to be on the road to that changing, and the scholarships really helped support me in that.”
Amy says one of the very special things about receiving the scholarships was that they made her feel acknowledged.
“I felt like someone noticed. It was nice to be acknowledged and feel that my hard work had got me somewhere.”
Blessings of acknowledgement also helped the family business survive the worst of lockdown, with more people sending each other the gift of flowers.
You can help more students like Amy be fearless finding a foothold in their careers by supporting the Matthew Flinders Scholarship Fund.