Not-so-wise words of an international medical student

Foong Yi Chao

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Foong Yi Chao Fourth Year Medicine (Undergraduate) University of Tasmania

Foong Yi Chao is studying medicine in Launceston General Hospital, Launceston, Tasmania, Africa. He spends his days dodging bullets and saving lives.

4 years ago, when I was a young, naive 18 year old leaving home for the first time, in a conversation with another young, slightly more naïve but pretty 18 year old:

…so yeah I’m off to study medicine in Tasmania.

‘Oh really? Wow that’s so noble of you!’

[Feeling pretty confused] umm…sorry?

‘That’s pretty impressive that you’re going all the way to Africa to study medicine! Aren’t you worried about the wars and AIDS?’

[Realizing that she was talking about Tanzania, which by the way has no war as far as I know] oh…yeah. [Pause] I guess I am pretty impressive.

I thought it’d just be easier if she thought I was risking my life saving lives in a war-torn country rather than explain the full story. She was very pretty.


International students form an important part of the medical student landscape in Australia. In 2009, we had about 3400 new medical students out of which roughly 15% were international medical students (1). It is a privilege for Australia’s medical workforce to be such a multicultural one which attracts students from all across the world with a variety of backgrounds, and I’m glad that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a small part of the excellent environment here. The past four years have been nothing short of amazing for me and personally I’m enjoying every single day here.

Having said that, I haven’t forgotten the very real difficulties I faced initially in a new environment. The first year in particular was very difficult for me, trying to settle into a foreign environment coming from a distinctly different background as I did. Whilst many international students took to Australia like a fish to water, I know I would have appreciated some advice before coming here. So here’s some quick advice on medicine and life in a new country that I’ve learnt the hard way in the last 4 years:

Do your research and know what you’re getting yourself into.

This applies to basically everything, be it the choice of medical schools or the place of residence. I remember my first weekend in Australia was spent at MedCamp after a 5th year student explained that it was a good chance for me to practice ‘medical skills’. I spent the weekend terrified in the corner watching others drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol and saw more censored content than I ever have in my urology or breast surgery rotations. And to those really cool kids that run these camps – if you see a poor kid sleeping by himself in the corner, don’t throw ketchup or milk or eggs at him. Or have sex in his bunk without inviting him. That’s just poor manners really. In all seriousness, it pays to do your research before committing yourself – for example if you love the outdoors Tasmania can be a perfect location for you, whereas if you may want to consider somewhere else if shopping is an essential part of your existence.

Look confident.

I know this is one that all medical students struggle with, but it becomes much harder when you come from a radically different background. It took me ages before I could stop stuttering when consultants asked me a question during ward rounds. Often I find that the problem isn’t actually knowing the answer, but answering in a coherent manner. The only solution is to practice, practice and practice again. Particularly for those whom English may not be their first language, it becomes even more important not to run away and to confront the problem by spending time on it. There’s no shortcut, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of clinical practice.

Spend time with patients.

I’ve often found a lot of joy interacting with patients – most of them are highly approachable and are interested to talk to people from different backgrounds. The most bizarre conversation I had was with the father of a paediatric patient whose second sentence to me was ‘I’m a racist’. By the end of the conversation he was confiding in me about his sister-in-law who was on the run from the law for a stabbing. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many patients who have treated me with such kindness and openness, and they’ve taught me more than any textbook can teach me on practicing medicine. So hit the wards and get to know your patients. You never know what amazing stories they have in store for you.

Put yourself out there.

Most people I’ve met have been incredibly kind and generous to me. The best illustration is probably my time on rural placement in Flinders Island – the community was extremely receptive to us and the 2 weeks I spent there were the best ever in my medical school. We had a great time in terms of learning medicine, but on top of that we went rockclimbing, spearfishing, lawn bowling, bushwalking with a group of 70 year olds and Scottish dancing with a lady over 90 years old. There are so many experiences awaiting you just around the corner – so get out of your comfort zone and choose your own adventure.

Be open minded

When living in another country with a radically different set of values and traditions from yourself, it can be easy to be judgmental and compare it against your own culture. Be it in medicine or in general life, it’s always important to be open and accepting of people that are radically different from you.

Maintain a work-life balance

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the extent of medicine and spend days buried in books and lecture notes. Don’t. Get out there and live your life to the fullest– be it volunteering, sports, part-time work or a night out with friends. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to make some like-minded friends and I now often spend my weekend rockclimbing or bushwalking. Working with the Big Issue’s Street Soccer Program was also an amazing opportunity for me – I met so many players from all walks of life and they gave me the hardest thing to gain in life: perspective. I do believe that all these experiences have made me grow up and a better student doctor in the end. So go out there and experience life – medicine is so much more than facts and figures.

Having said all of that I must emphasize that my time here has been thoroughly enjoyable. It wasn’t always easy, and there were moments where I doubted my decision to come to the land Down Under all alone, but looking back I know I made the right choice. My friends here have embraced me in a way that I’d never thought possible and I’ve shared with them experiences I’ll remember for the rest of my life. So there you go – get on that plane and enjoy some of the best years of your life.

Foong Yi Chao is a 4th year medical student studying medicine in Launceston General Hospital, Launceston, Tasmania, Africa. He spends his days dodging bullets and saving lives.

1. Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand. National Clinical Training Review: Report to the Medical Training Review Panel Clinical Training Sub-committee [Online]. 2009.

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