Arifa Jahan Ema

Arifa Jahan Ema

Arifa Jahan Ema

  • Student type: International
  • Degree type: Masters
  • Degree(s): Master of Philosophy

Master of Philosophy, Occupational Therapy

Tell us about your career journey to date – what inspired you to pursue a career in OT?

I was born on a tiny and remote island of Bangladesh where the education facilities were not very well-structured. I moved to the city when I was 11 years old without my parents and lived there with relatives. Leaving home at such an early stage is not common in Bangladesh – it gave me my fair share of struggles and challenges, but I have always believed that every challenge brings new opportunities. When I look back now, I am glad that I survived that roller coaster ride. I am so thankful to my family, mentor, teachers, and friends who have been there through thick and thin.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in OT from the Bangladesh Health Professions Institute (BHPI), the only OT school in Bangladesh, in 2013. The course is affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine, University of Dhaka and accredited by the World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT). After completing one year of internship, I worked as a Clinical Occupational Therapist at the Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) rehabilitation Unit of the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) for three and a half years.

With the help of an Australia Awards scholarship sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I moved to Australia in 2018 to pursue an MPhil in OT at Monash University. I returned home to Bangladesh in March 2020 and subsequently started work as a Lecturer at my alma mater, BHPI.

Currently, I am on a mission to start the Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSc in OT) program in Bangladesh. I also hope to use my clinical research and practice to support disability health and enable the return to study and work of people with a spinal cord injury in Bangladesh. Before my admission application in undergraduate level, I didn’t have a clear idea about OT, so I paid a visit to the CRP, which provides rehabilitation services for people with disabilities. It was the first time in my life I had seen so many people with disabilities together in a hospital, and it made me pause and reflect. I realised I would get the opportunity to work with individuals from all walks of life. In my subsequent research into the discipline, I discovered a quote: “Medicine adds days to life, Occupational Therapy adds life to days.” I was inspired to be a practitioner who could empower people in such an extraordinary way. The philosophy of the OT profession aligns with my core values as a person, and this work has been a perfect fit for me.

As an academic and a lifelong learner, education is one of the paths I would choose over and over, because I believe one can bring equality and socio-economic transformation in society with the help of a proper education. I am a budding researcher and passionate about photography, reading, blogging, and travelling.

I am also a governing panel member of the Occupational Therapy Special Interest Group (OTSIG) of the International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS). The OTSIG of the ISCoS works to promote spinal cord injury practice, research, and education worldwide. I received the Outstanding Student Award for Poster Presentation at the ISCoS Annual Conference 2018, held in Sydney, Australia. I have also been the face of the campaign for the Australia Awards Bangladesh for the 2021 and 2022 intakes and have been featured in the Australia Awards and SBS Bangla.

Why did you choose to complete your MPhil with Monash University?

I was on a quest to become an OT educator and OT researcher with all the skills a world-class education could offer – it made sense to choose Monash University. I also found I had shared interests with my MPhil supervisors, Professor Ellie Fossey and Dr Linda Barclay, who researched SCI rehabilitation. They have set a great example of how great educators can nurture curious minds and empower them, and I know I made the best choice.

What was it like being an Australian Awards scholar and international student at Monash OT?

Studying at Monash University on a scholarship was an impressive string to my bow. My cohort had terrific leaders from around the world, and I made friends with a bunch of them who I can stop by if I ever take a world tour. The scholarship also instilled in me that it was not only for studying in Australia but also to bring about change in Bangladesh.

My experience of studying at Monash University was different to what I expected. It came as a surprise when I first learned that in my two-year degree, I would never attend a class or sit an exam. I had some online modules to complete and participated in a few workshops physically, but it was never like a traditional classroom. Instead, I had a self-structured and self-regulated routine and an action plan to meet my research milestones. I also had an extraordinary research office shared with other post-grad research degree students. The library resources I had access to were incredible, to say the least.

It did feel very isolating at the start, but my supervisors, the Bangladeshi community in Melbourne, and my friends helped me cope. The experience taught me to plan my own journey and build resilience, commitment, and accountability towards it, which are very important for academics and researchers.

I was the post-graduate student representative in the faculty’s diversity and inclusion executive committee. It was a very enriching experience for me to learn about diversity and inclusion and embrace multiculturalism. Student life at Monash was also a lot of fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed the campus events and concerts in front of the library lawn. I also made the best use of the sunny days out there and made sure a good cuppa was in hand.

Have you stayed connected with your peers and lecturers from Monash?

Yes, I am still connected to them. My supervisors and I have submitted one of my MPhil papers for publication and are working on the second one. I look forward to many more in future.

I have friends across borders who I can reach out to any time without thinking about the time zone. Thanks to technology, we can make it happen.

What's your fondest memory of your time studying at Monash?

There are many! I spoke at the career talk arranged for the new OT students and became a book multiple times at the Human Book library. I never thought my journey could inspire someone, but a few of my audience suggested I write a book, which was very inspiring to hear. Apart from the campus activities, I have skydived to celebrate my 28th birthday. Jumping out of the aircraft from 15,000 ft was crazy (I know), but it was the most breathtaking experience I have ever had. I was an avid fan of Melbourne buskers too.

How does OT in Bangladesh compare to OT in Australia?

In terms of the familiarity of the profession, it is very well-known in Australia. I’ve never had to explain to anyone what OT is. This isn’t the case in Bangladesh, where it is in its third decade, and there is an outstanding track record of employment in the private sector, but it is not very well-known yet.

On a population level it may take time for people to understand the philosophical concept of OT, considering the country context. In Bangladesh, there is no national health care scheme. So before jumping in to provide the service, you need to take a closer look at people’s lives and plan accordingly. It is crucial to be mindful of the limitations and conditions of Bangladesh. Practising OT there requires sensitivity to individuals' cultural and health needs and beliefs and values. That said, the ongoing demand is the same in both countries.

Congratulations on your recent selection to the World Health Organization (WHO) as a member of its Guidance Development Group to develop an Interim Guidance document for the Rehabilitation of Post COVID-19 Condition. Would you like to share a bit about what this will involve and what this opportunity means for you?

As part of the WHO’s Rehabilitation2030 goal, the WHO, together with partners, is developing an interim guidance document highlighting rehabilitation care for people suffering from the Post Covid-19 Condition. The WHO has formed a global team, and I am blessed and honoured to represent the WFOT. The opportunity to work with the WHO is one of my deepest wishes that have come to life. I hope to put my best endeavour into this work and build a strong network with team members with extraordinary skillsets.

What's the most valuable advice you have received, or you would give to others? 

“Never forget to hit the status quo and do not be changed by the world,” says my mother.

“Everything has got a right time, not too early, not too late. We get what we deserve. So, it is important to be visionary and keep working to achieve the vision,” says my teacher and mentor, Dr Mohammad Mosayed Ullah Russell.

I have these quotes written in my diary to fuel me when I feel down. Along with these, I want to remind people that the hustle culture of today’s world is a lie. Listen to your mind and body, and remember, it is okay to be unplugged when necessary.

Do you have any reflections to share on Monash OT's 15th anniversary? What would you like to see from Monash OT in the next 15 years?

I am delighted to extend my sincere congratulations to the educators, students and alumni of the Department of Occupational Therapy, Monash University, on the 15th anniversary. The learning culture of the OT department at Monash taught me how to foster true partnerships, and to model leadership, ethical teaching, and research. I am trying to translate all these experiences into my professional career here in Bangladesh. I want to build a long-standing partnership with my alma mater and to cooperate successfully in an international exchange of learning and teaching in the years to come. I am confident that the OT department at Monash University will continue to play a significant role in making a difference for OT students and professionals in Australia and the world. I wish to extend my best wishes for its continued success over the next 15 years and for years to come.