A grounding in science at Forth Valley College really prepared Optometry student Hannah McIntyre for a life changing volunteering adventure in South Africa.
Hannah (27) from Camelon a former HND Applied Biological Sciences student at FVC used her skills to help people on board the Phelophepa train - meaning ‘good, clean health’ - run by the Transnet Foundation in partnership with Glasgow Caledonian University, which visits some of the poorest areas in South Africa delivering first rate health care to those who need it the most.
Optometry students – such as Hannah - from the School of Health and Life Sciences at the university can take the opportunity for placement on the Phelophepa healthcare train project which provides healthcare by rail to South Africa’s neediest communities.
She said: “Transnet run two trains that go and deliver healthcare to rural areas. I first heard about it through Glasgow Caledonia University who have got a partnership with Transnet, so there is the option to find out more about it and sign up and go in the third year of your degree with some of your classmates.
“There were six of us altogether in my group and we all went at the start of June 2018 for just under three weeks - two full weeks on the train which was great! On the train we were doing a mixture of different things, we were mainly testing eyes and there would be people waiting just to see you, sometimes for up to a week, before we even stopped at the station.
“We tested kids, adults, older people and it was the first time I had ever tested a kid in my life and it was terrifying. Other than that you got the option of going into the lab on the train where they make up the glasses and that was a pretty welcome change some days. Alternatively you could be signing people in and registering that they were there and telling them how long they were going to be waiting.”
The project won the United Nations Public Service Award in 2008 and has gone from strength to strength, from a three-carriage eye clinic to an 18-carriage state-of-the-art mobile healthcare provider, treating up to 100 patients a day.
Hannah went on: “The experience was mixed for me. I feel I got so much from it practise-wise that I will never get at uni, until I am in a real life work situation. It wasn’t always happy times. It really gave me an insight into how other people have to live and how little some people have – I think it has really opened my eyes a wee bit to that and how a tiny bit of a volunteer’s help can help someone else.
“But all in all it was a great experience, especially on the practical side of things where I feel I got an invaluable insight into what the job is all about, something which I would never have received at home. It also gave me a wee bit of wider knowledge of the things you don’t see very often, like seeing the conditions that people have to live in over there.
“It has definitely changed me and i would recommend that other students take up the same opportunity, or another volunteering opportunity. We all take our eyesight a wee bit for granted in this country, so it lets you see just how valuable it is to people and how other people need people to go and volunteer and help out. The train I was working on would not be able to operate without volunteers going over.”
Hannah said: “I started at Forth Valley College in 2013 and I studied an Access to Science course for the first year and the second year I progressed into an HNC in Applied Sciences. I feel like FVC allowed me to get back into a routine of studying. The support there really helped and peaked my interest again and motivated me to study more and come to all the classes. This was important as getting back into further education when you have been out of it for so long can be quite tricky, especially trying to get back into a routine.
“The lecturers were amazing and so supportive every step of the way, whether I was e-mailing them in the middle of the night because I was stressing about an exam or coming in early in the morning to chew their ear off, they were all great and the facilities were all great as well.
“I would definitely recommend Forth Valley College as a stepping stone for someone to go on to higher education in a science based subject as it is, in my opinion, the best place to go. I don’t think I would be where I am right now if I didn’t come to Forth Valley College.
“After FVC I went to Glasgow Caledonian University to study Optometry, that was always the end game for where I wanted to be when I started at FVC and I am now in my fourth year. I love it. This has always been my passion and that is why I came back to study and being an Opthamologist is what I want to go on and do. I have stepped away from lab-skills and am moving into health care side of the profession where there is a lot of group work and team projects involved, which I feel that the college has prepared me for.
“For students thinking about science as a career I would suggest do it, just do it… but work hard because it is a lot of work. People think that coming back to college that it’s not going to be that bad, need to know that it is hard work and you need to put your head down, especially if it is to help you get to where you want to be and take on all the “opportunities that present themselves like extra classes, extra study time, that were offered when I was here at Forth Valley College as that was something that was invaluable for me.
“I will now finish up my degree in July 2019 and I have got a year of supervised testing before I am officially qualified and I am now considering the option of going on to do medicine at Dundee University, but that is still a wee bit away so we will wait and see.”