Most readers will agree that optometry is a most demanding university degree. Not only do you need a very high Universities Admissions Index to be accepted into the course but it takes an enormous amount of dedication and academic application to complete.
One optometry student who has just graduated from University of New South Wales is Jenna Owen. She is not just the latest of a band of cohorts to complete her optometry degree, but her story is one which is truly inspiring, proving that where there is a will… and an opportunity… anything is possible.
Growing up on an isolated farm in central western New South Wales, Jenna Owen couldn’t have imagined that studying optometry would lead her to become a role model and pioneer, of sorts.
She has an outstanding academic record by any standards – a distinction average and recipient of the coveted CooperVision Australia Prize for the best fourth year performance at the UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science. At the age of 23, Jenna will become the first Indigenous optometrist in NSW… and only the second person in Australia identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to qualify in optometry. And as if that’s not enough she is also a gifted golfer with a handicap of four.
I see this as a calling for me… the fact that I am an Indigenous person gives me an understanding about the population
This talented and dedicated graduate hopes her story will inspire others from her community to follow in her footsteps.
Born and raised in a small farming town called Albert, 140 kilometres west of Dubbo. The village itself has a population of just 11, with most of the community made up of surrounding farms and soon, a Big Rabbit Trap (in the scale of the Big Banana and Big Pineapple) which is currently being built by the local residents to lure tourists to their tiny town.
With no local school, life growing up in Albert certainly did not offer a lot of opportunities outside of farming for anyone, let alone a young Indigenous girl.
To the Owen family, the ‘big smoke’ was the regional centre of Dubbo, where mum would go every few weeks to stock up on groceries.
“We wouldn’t go in there much because we were at school,” Jenna recalls.
“School was about an hour on the bus because we had to do a trip to all the farms. We went to Tottenham Central School, which went from primary to high school, but not many students went right through.”
When Jenna was 14, her parents made a conscious decision to expand the educational opportunities for their two children and moved the kids to Dubbo.
“My dad stayed on the farm and mum moved with my brother and I to Dubbo to give us a better opportunity at a decent education. They were an incredibly supportive family.
“I attended Dubbo Christian School from Year 8 onwards and I had a pretty good education there.”
Jenna recalls how she first developed an interest in optometry… and it was all thanks to the local optometrist in Dubbo and her own myopia.
“For some reason, I was always interested in health. I always had the feeling that I wanted to do something in health, but I wasn’t sure what.
“When I was 15, I applied for my driving learner’s permit, but I failed the eye test, so I went to see the local optometrist, a man called Tony Burgun, from Burgun & Brennan Optometrist. I got a bit of a shock when he told me I was short sighted and put glasses on me.
“He was really good to me and he suggested I come in and see what an optometrist does. I ended up doing work experience with him while I was still at school and I loved it. My interest piqued from there.
“He spoke to me and said, ‘Look Jen, it’s a great profession for women’, which it is… and I like working with people and it provided me with what I wanted to do.”
So, when Jenna matriculated with very high marks, she knew what she wanted to do, but the problem for this young country girl was how to go about it.
As Jenna explains it, a friend of a friend had heard about a group called Nura Gili, an Indigenous student advisory service operating from the campus of the University of NSW.
“I was the first person in my family to attend university, so none of us had any idea how to apply.”
She did some research on Nura Gili and the family came down to Sydney to meet with them.
“I knew it was hard to get into optometry, but they organised a meeting with the School of Optometry. They never had an Indigenous student before… I was the first. I really wanted to do optometry right through high school and when I was finally accepted it was a fantastic feeling.”
Jenna says the biggest shock for her was not academia, as she had always enjoyed studying, but having to move so far from home.
The biggest challenges were the social and cultural adjustments of being alone in a city the size of Sydney.
“I was fairly homesick, especially in the first year,” Jenna says with a laugh. “I was on the phone a lot and because it was so far I couldn’t just duck home for the weekend, but I went home every holiday either by train or plane.
“When I first came down to Sydney mum was worried about how we could afford it because it is very expensive to live here. Mum would say ‘where are you going to live and is it safe?’.”
Nura Gili had the answer to all of mum’s worries. Under the auspices of Shalom College, a Jewish facility at the University of NSW, an accommodation program for Indigenous students, the ‘Shalom Gamarada Scholarship’ had just begun, supported by Investec Bank.
Shalom College’s website describes the scholarship as a collaboration between the College and the Muru Marri Indigenous Health Unit, School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW.
The program awarded its first scholarship in 2005 and now sponsors more than half of the Indigenous medical students at UNSW. The College says the program was instigated to limit the “significant drop-out rate of Indigenous students from university as they find the task of working to support themselves while conducting their studies an exceedingly arduous undertaking”.
“That was the biggest weight off our minds as the scholarship paid for my living expenses.”
Through Shalom “the partnership between the Jewish and Indigenous communities regarding the scholarships has gone from strength to strength,” says Jenna.
“When I first moved into Shalom, I was one of the earliest scholarships. There were three of us there and it was actually started as a medical scholarship. I was the first allied health scholarship recipient and now the program offers more than 20 Indigenous scholarships. They all study medicine except for me.”
Jenna says being the first Indigenous optometry student wasn’t at the forefront of her mind, when she first moved to Sydney, but it did hit her after she’d been studying for a while.
“It actually shocked me when I realised that there had not been any other Indigenous optometry students in NSW. Until we found out about a lady in Melbourne who graduated about 10 years ago, we thought I was the first in Australia.”
Jenna sums up her five years at university this way: “It was a bit of a shock at first but I settled into the academic side of uni pretty quickly and enjoyed the optometry course more and more as it became more clinical.
“In the early years we were doing a lot of basic sciences and as the course went on it became more practical and clinical and this year we’ve done basically all clinical experience so there’s been internal placement at our own school’s clinic and external placements and I’ve just loved that. It’s been the best learning experience.”
“Being first in class is surreal…can’t believe it. Mum was pretty shocked when I got the letter saying I had received the CooperVision prize for fourth year optometry.
“Throughout the last couple of years I’ve developed an interest in ocular pathology, eye disease. I think that working in a rural area you see a lot more conditions than in the city.”
Jenna says she now wants to work with Indigenous and remote communities and realises that there are a lot of preventable eye disease among the Indigenous population which rival, and even surpass, third world rates.
“Education about health in general can alleviate this as well as access to services in rural places which is really poor and the gap between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians in terms of health outcomes.
“Much of the gap I put down to a lack of education and access. There are not a lot of services in remote areas for a start and also people aren’t educated about their own health issues and what they need to do to help them.”
“I see this as a calling for me and other rural optometrists. The fact that I am an Indigenous person gives me an understanding about the population.
“I feel as though if I go home to work with the Indigenous community, I will have a lot more understanding on a cultural level and that’s what I want to do.
“But not only that, I want to inspire young kids to come to university. It’s very hard. It’s very difficult from a rural area, and particularly for Indigenous people.
“I think education is a really powerful tool for Indigenous people. It empowers not only the individual, but the community. If we have young Indigenous people coming to university – and even young rural people in general coming to university – we will have those professionals who will go back to where they came from and support their communities.”
Understandably, Jenna’s family and her community in general are extremely proud of her achievements, but she says it hasn’t changed her.
“I’m still the same person I was, but I’ve had a lot of people from where I grew up say they want the same for their kids and ask me how they go about applying to get into uni,” Jenna says proudly.
When she completes her course and starts work as an optometrist Jenna says she wants to get out of Sydney. She would eventually like to go home to the Dubbo area, and still keeps in contact with her early mentor, Tony Burgun. In fact, she did one of her preceptorship places with him and he wants Jenna to go back to work for him.
First, Jenna has other fish to fry.
“I really want to do a little bit of travelling first… get a little bit more clinical experience in different places where I’ve never lived before.
“I’ve actually got a job lined up in Port Macquarie, so I’ll start work there and hopefully see a broad range of patients and get a lot of clinical experience at a few different places.”
She feels strongly that rural Australia is where she can make the most difference.
“There’s also the opportunity to do remote clinics there because the practice that I’ll be working for has clinics in other small towns around there, so I’ll also be working in the smaller communities. There’s also opportunities with ICEE (International Centre for Eyecare Education) to work up north and I’d love to do that when I get a bit more experience.
“Indigenous communities suffer a lot from diabetes where I come from. It’s a systemic disease, but it has a lot of ramifications for eye health. It’s a matter of education and good general health care. Optometrists have an opportunity to educate people about not just their eyes but also their general health.
“Trachoma is another disease in more remote communities, particularly in the Northern Territory. They have third world health issues and I want to work with them. It’s also a matter of hygiene and education.
“Education is such a vital tool in the development of a healthy future for Aboriginal communities. Psychologists, social workers, GPs, etc. are all needed to work together in rural communities.
“I would highly recommend members of my community study anything in the health field. Optometry is good, particularly rural optometry. We need to get more rural kids to study it. Hopefully, I’ll inspire some of them to do that.”