"I have become more confident, more empathic and much more flexible in my work as a speech pathologist"

How two years in Bhutan gave one Australian volunteer a new approach to work, and life.

Kat Francis volunteered as a speech pathology advisor at the Changangkha Middle Secondary School in Bhutan for two years. This unique experience gave her new skills and a fresh perspective on life. Here's Kat's story.

 

Arriving in Bhutan in 2016, I felt like I had entered another world. The landscapes: snow-capped Himalayas, crystalline rivers and hill-top monasteries, were even more stunning than the photos I had Googled.

My assignment, as a speech pathology advisor at the only government school with a special education program in Bhutan, meant I was supporting teachers working with children with communication disabilities related to varying conditions: Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and intellectual and learning difficulties.

Kat (far right) with Rachel (second from right) and Australian volunteer Charlie Cristi (second from left) and husband Alex (far left) outside a temple where they had a welcome ceremony.
Right to left: Australian volunteer Kat stands with Rachel, Australian volunteer Charlie Cristi and her husband Alex outside a temple where they had a welcome ceremony. Supplied: Kat Francis
Kat Francis in Bhutan.
Volunteer Kat Francis takes shelter from the rain in Bhutan. Supplied: Kat Francis

Adapting to new environments 

Speech pathology is a relatively unknown field in Bhutan, with the country's only local speech pathologist based at the national hospital. Much of my work, therefore, involved creating awareness around my role and the impact of having a communication disability. I found I often needed to explain the difference between speech pathology and teaching.

Adapting to a new culture and working environment was, of course, challenging at times. The working structure was more hierarchical than what I was used to. I appreciated the way the teachers treated one another and their superiors, and how this attitude was reflected in the respect and politeness the students showed their teachers. Students bowing and greeting me as 'madam' took some getting used to though!

Managing time in the workplace was also different. The local phenomenon known as 'Bhutan stretchable time' meant that meeting times, agendas and deadlines were all flexible. I learned that while time is valuable, personal situations are sometimes more important. If taking your mother to the hospital meant you were running late or had to reschedule, no one minded. 

I came to really value the Bhutanese approach. I became more flexible in my own working practices and found I was able to deal with unexpected situations as they arose in a more calm and relaxed manner.

 

Punakha Dzong the administrative centre of Punakha District in Punakha Bhutan.
Punakha Dzong, the administrative centre of Punakha District in Punakha, Bhutan. Supplied: Kat Francis
Kat middle with fellow Australian volunteers Rachel and Alison outside Paro Dzong a Buddhist monastery and fortress to attend the annual tshechu festival.
Kat (middle) with Australian volunteers Rachel and Alison, outside Paro Dzong, a Buddhist monastery and fortress. Supplied: Kat Francis

My experience in Bhutan has been a life-changing one, both personally and professionally. I was lucky enough to travel across the country, be invited into people's homes (Bhutanese hospitality is truly wonderful), trek through the Himalayas and visit some of the most special and spiritual places in the world.

I sampled butter tea and chilli cheese and added a smattering of Dzongkha, the national language, to my smatterings of other languages. My outlook on life has been enriched through conversations with Bhutanese people about Buddhism, their country, their king and their way of life. Professionally, I feel I have become more confident, more empathic, and much more flexible.

Kat Francis was a volunteer speech pathology advisor at the Changangkha Middle Secondary School from January 2016 to January 2018, as part of the Australian Volunteers Program. On assignment she was interviewed on local radio about being a speech pathologist in Bhutan.

 

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