Study & Work Abroad - Melbourne VIC, Australia

Interview & Text | Samantha Leong, Khin Chong, Clare Lee, Clarice Lee

Clare Lee Education Pathway: International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) > A- Levels > Bachelor of Science, Major in Human Structure and Function (Final Year)

Career Pathway: Working as a part-time front of house (FOH) team member in an optometrist practice in Melbourne.

What is the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE)?

IGCSE is an internationally recognised certification for the completion of secondary schooling — an equivalent to the British O-Level and the UK GCSE, typically taken when students reach Fifth Form or Year 11. The IGCSE exams are taken prior to the GCE Advanced Level (A-Levels, taken during Sixth Form / Year 12 and 13), or any other pre-university qualifications. In Malaysia, IGCSE and SPM are popular high school leavers’ certifications. While both are equivalent qualifications, there are a number of stark differences between the two — SPM is a national Malaysian examination for Form 5 students (Year 11 equivalent), while the IGCSE is certified by education boards in the UK, such as Cambridge, Edexcel, etc. Furthermore, the IGCSE programme is a popular pathway for local students from Malaysia to study abroad.

What is the General Certificate of Education - Advanced Level (GCE A-Level)?

A-Level is a pre-university programme as part of the UK’s General Certificate of Education system. You can think of it as the UK’s STPM, though just like the IGCSE, both programmes have several key differences including the exams, grading systems, and teaching methods. A-Levels are offered in some college institutions in Malaysia, and prepares you for a university degree through the in-depth study of several subjects.

There are two parts to A-Levels — these are Advanced Subsidiary Level (AS Level) and A2 Level. Examination in both levels will contribute 50% towards the final A-Level grade. During my A-Levels, I studied Biology, Chemistry, and Mathematics.

(pic) A little ironic but I never actually had classes here. Just me being a typical tourist on my first few days of uni haha!

Where are you currently studying, and why did you choose said institution?

I am currently in the final year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne (Unimelb).

There are several reasons why I chose to study at Unimelb. Currently, Unimelb is ranked 1st in Australia and 31st in the world according to Times Higher Education (THE) 2021. If you are an academic high achiever, Unimelb will be a good choice for you.

I enrolled into a 3-year undergraduate Bachelor’s Degree of Science as I was interested in health sciences, as well as exploring other areas within the field, e.g. environmental sciences. This degree granted me such an opportunity due to its flexible structure in allowing students to choose from various subjects and more than 40 majors to specialise in. For example, I am currently majoring in Human Structure and Function, but I took up Mapping Environments as a subject elective, which I found super interesting!

Unimelb undergraduate degrees also require students to complete breadth subjects, which are outside the specialisation of their Bachelor’s Degrees. I took up subjects related to music, dance, and foreign languages. I greatly enjoyed breadth subjects as they offered a way to: 1) Learn something fresh and fun, 2) Feel less overwhelmed from studying exclusively science subjects throughout my degree.

The goal after my undergraduate degree is to pursue dentistry, which Unimelb offers as a 4-year master’s-level course called the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). This is one of the many professional graduate degrees that Unimelb offers as a graduate pathway. In total, it will be 7 years of tertiary education to achieve a dentistry degree.

I, like many others, came face-to-face with the dawning realisation that pursuing a career within the medical field is an undoubtedly huge commitment — it’s mentally and wallet-taxing, and takes way longer than most career and academic fields. Hence, this graduate degree pathway provided by Unimelb allowed me to take time and experience different kinds of subjects before I confidently made the decision to commit to a professional graduate degree. If I wished to change my career choices halfway through my Bachelor’s Degree, I could always change courses during my postgraduate studies hassle-free.

I know, I know — it’s a long time — but everyone’s journey is a little different, and I’m enjoying mine so far!

Are there any entry requirements for Unimelb’s DDS?

In order to have a good chance of getting a place in this programme, students will need to achieve a good Grade Point Average (GPA) in their undergraduate degree as well as a competitive score in the Graduate Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT). The GAMSAT is a standardised test for admissions to graduate medical schools in the UK, Ireland, and Australia, and is only offered in a few countries including Australia and Singapore. Applicants must also have completed prerequisite subjects in anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry during their undergraduate degree to be eligible to apply for the DDS course.

Honestly, these are all just information about one of Unimelb’s graduate pathways. I wish I had someone to sit me down and explain these kinds of details when I was applying.

Any advice you want to share based on your own experiences with the students who plan to pursue a healthcare-related degree overseas?

The most clichéd answer is to study hard — there’s no other way to go around it. Pursuing a healthcare-related degree is honest, arduous work, and is usually paired with higher academic requirements than other pathways. The level of commitment amps up by a ton — there are usually longer contact hours and practical lab sessions, and it requires much discipline and time management in order to prioritise life in and outside of university. Admittedly, I still struggle in juggling work, school, and my social life as a third-year student during periods where one’s priority outweighs the other, e.g. exam seasons! What are your motivations to pursue a degree in healthcare? What do you want to achieve out of this? What do you find most fulfilling doing? Spend time questioning your choices, and talk to experts, seniors in the field you wish to pursue! University requirements, pathways, certifications for different countries it’s truly difficult to give a single set of perfect advice that would completely assist the journey of every healthcare student — each of them is way too individualized and unique!

But I can say this — keep your eye on the goal. Do your research, and do it well. Nothing feels worse than being forced to study something you have no heart for, what more building a career related to it for the rest of your life?! Melodramatics aside — it’s not the end of the world, though. Many people have successful careers that have nothing to do with whatever degree they studied for. The point I want to get across is that healthcare-related degrees are long and expensive — so it’s best not to toss years into it when you want to do something else.

Many students do not know which path to take right after completing high school or college, did you encounter this as well?

After I did my IGCSE exams, I was very lost on what to do as well. It took a few education consulting sessions and dinner talks with my family on where I should proceed from here on out.

Do not feel disheartened or afraid if you feel the same way. Not everyone immediately figures out their passions and career choices straight out of high school. It’s normal to feel lost and anxious during this period of your life — just do your best in exploring and learning different pathways to pursue.

I made the decision to take up the challenge of A-Levels after a few detours on my journey, which allowed me to have a wider range of degree options after that.

Can you share with the readers about your A-Level journey?

My A-Level journey was definitely not an ordinary one! After my IGCSEs, I fixated on one goal — getting into a 5-year Bachelor of Dentistry programme in the UK. Both my parents graduated from universities in the UK and their stories about their lives at that period were always really intriguing.

After a whole lot of research and attending countless education exhibitions, I found this amazing A-Level programme based in Norwich, UK, which provides specialised guidance to students who intend to explore the fields of medicine and dentistry, as well as assistance in the application processes to immensely competitive university courses on top of what other colleges offered in an A-Level programme. The programme also provided its students opportunities to shadow specialists and surgeons in hospitals and learn some basic medical procedures, such as drawing blood and using stethoscopes. Those experiences were truly invaluable to me.

I enjoyed this programme and made tons of friends, but my time in the UK came to a close when my parents suggested that Australia was a better place to pursue my degree because of the higher employability rate for fresh graduates compared to the UK. After spending half a year in Norwich, I went back to my hometown Kota Kinabalu (KK) for the summer holidays. I took this time to re-think my university choices, life choices, whatever you name it! I was once again LOST. So much for thinking I had it all under control in my hands.

Onwards to a new path, I took account of their suggestions and continued my A-Levels at a local college in my hometown and earned grades that got me accepted into my current Bachelor of Science degree programme. Crisis averted!

(pic) My sister and I celebrating Hari Raya in uni with our Malay friends by doing a Raya shoot in front of the iconic clock tower of unimelb for TV3 Malaysia!

How was your university life in Australia?

I think one of the most attractive things about Australia as a study destination is that it’s closer to home, as well as having a large Asian community. Familiarity to aid any culture shocks aside, there are many local and international students in my university’s cohort, so it was easy to make friends with different types of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Unimelb also boasts many clubs and associations — film, choirs, food, etc. — the list just goes on forever.

During my first semester here, I joined the Malaysians of Melbourne University (MOMU) club. MOMU was established to bring together Malaysian students on campus and neighbouring universities. It was great and comforting to find friends that were in the same exact place as I was, as we maneuver within this new environment together.

I also joined the Melbourne University Cheer and Dance Club, where I made friends that all shared a common interest in dancing. I’ll talk more about this later, but it was great to participate in something that garnered a lot of school spirit! Being in Australia increased my confidence to put myself out there more. When you’re studying and living independently, you learn how to speak up and ask questions for yourself — there are more responsibilities to look after, and knowing how to navigate new experiences may be daunting — but being outside your comfort zone forces you to grow as a person; and that’s what it did, ultimately, in a very positive way.

Can you share with us about your current part-time job experience (e.g. how did you seek employment, the interview experience, etc.)?

I actually just started seeking part-time jobs at the end of last year! After fully adjusting and getting acquainted with Melbourne’s culture and lifestyle, I felt ready to start gaining career experiences and to build some financial independence. I have to say, it wasn’t easy — there were countless days and nights submitting my resume to hundreds of companies on job-seeking websites.

After some time, I received a response from my current employer. I had the qualifications required for the job — a minimum of 6 months of retail working experience, which I’ve gratefully gained through working in THE BEAN Ca Lounge in KK, and went through two rounds of interviews. The first round was a basic introductory session through a virtual interview, and the second required performing the skills related to the work. A few weeks later, I started working part-time as a front of house (FOH) team member in this local optometry practice and the rest is history.

As a FOH team member, I’m responsible for administrative and receptionist work, retail assistance as well as some spectacle repairs. I learnt and am still learning every day about the fascinating world of optics, although I don’t even need glasses myself. I really enjoy my job as I get to talk to patients about their woos and woes of optic experiences and sometimes just about life in general! Assisting kids to choose frames for their first ever glasses is also a highlight of my job, they are just such a joy to work with! My work environment and co-workers are absolutely amazing, and I am grateful and appreciative of all the experiences I get to encounter as they not only improve my interpersonal skills, but are also greatly beneficial to my career in the future.

Do you have any tips for students if they plan to study in Melbourne or abroad? Ensure that all your official documents — passport, driving licences, etc. — have a lengthy expiry date, and if not, renew them in your home country because the process will be much easier and convenient compared to doing so abroad.

I highly recommend that students who do not plan to live in on-campus housing provided by their respective institutions to research appropriate third-party student housing companies. In Melbourne, many international students tend to room in Urbanest and UniLodge during their first year. It varies from country to country, but universities within Melbourne’s CBD (city) area tend to have higher-priced college dorms, so many just opt to rent outside.

Learn how to budget your living expenses. For example, the culture of eating out in Malaysia does not, in fact, translate super financially well in Australia (the expenses of my first year can provide such testimony). However, I’m more of an anomaly in the typical international student experience — as someone who lives outside Melbourne’s CBD area, I manage to get my monthly expenses down to around $AUD 400-600 — much lower compared to an average international student living in the city (which can be around $AUD 1000).

This advice is specific for students who plan to drive in Australia — as some, like me, may choose or have the opportunity to live outside the city in cheaper accommodation. Road laws are observed more strictly compared to Malaysia, and fines are much more expensive — be aware when driving around residential areas and school zones. If you’re planning to drive longer than 6 months in Melbourne, you will need to convert your Malaysian driver’s licence into a Victorian one. Check out the VicRoads website for such details.

As a student and teenager studying abroad, do you have any tips for parents if they plan to send their child to study abroad?

I know this is extremely off-putting to hear in the ears of an Asian parent, but giving your child the space to learn how to be independent is very essential before sending them off abroad. I mean this in different aspects — learning how to do every single housekeeping chore, how to manage their own financial budgets, developing emotional maturity and intelligence.

Teenagers, especially ones that have finished all their pre-university education at home, tend to already have this checklist covered, but just in case they didn’t — the best time to learn is now. When they’re away, it’s difficult to help them solve their problems through a phone call in real-time. It’s important to allow your child to develop an independent character that understands the route to making right decisions.

How do you deal with stress?

I’ve been taking ballet classes since I was a kid, and predictably, it became my passion, and an activity that I use to de-stress.

As I previously mentioned, I joined the university’s cheer and dance club, and have since then participated in several competitions representing the university. It is both relaxing and fulfilling to form an identity outside the main source of stress as a student — which is studying — so joining clubs and curriculars outside academia will give your mental and physical health a much-needed break from all the gruelling, hectic study periods.

There are departments within my university — and presumably most others — providing health and wellbeing student care. Students can book appointments for counselling and psychological services, as well as attend workshops that actively promote maintaining a good mental health during the course of your time there.

It’s super normalised to seek assistance and advice from experts if you’re dealing with major stress from school and work. I’ve been lucky enough to not ever have to reach an extent of needing to seek professional help for managing stress, but there is always an atmosphere of non-judgement when people in my social circles do.

(pics) Dance has always been my passion and something I could depend on when I need a break from my hectic uni life.

(pic above: Clare and Samantha during our online interview.)

Special thanks to Clare and Clarice for contributing valuable info to our e-publication!

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