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From vacuum cleaner saleswoman to oral health student…

From vacuum cleaner saleswoman to oral health student…


Valerie shares her experience of moving to Australia, the various struggles of sales and racial discrimination and how she embarked on her educational journey to study Oral Health. Whether you’re a fellow Oral Health student or an international student, you’ll find Valerie’s story inspiring. See how she makes a difference in the world of smiles.

Written by Valerie Chen.

It was a late summer morning in 2015 when my husband and I arrived back at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne.

This time I was coming to stay. Finally, I had my partner visa after 18 months of waiting. With our suitcases of belongings from Taiwan, it was the first day of our new chapter.

I met my husband-to-be on a working holiday in Australia, and had returned to Taiwan with him in 2013. We lived and worked in Taiwan and in 2014 we had a small but beautiful wedding in my hometown.

In the new year it was time for us to go. Knowing I was moving to Australia for good, it was an emotional time, packing for the big move and saying goodbye to my family.

Husband Leigh Hewitt’s painting of Valerie in a patterned dress.

I experienced a mixture of excitement, joy, sorrow, and guilt at the same time. 

As a newly arrived adult migrant, I was automatically enrolled in the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), which means that I was eligible to attend 510 hours of English classes free of charge within five years.

AMEP provides a multicultural and supportive environment which is truly beneficial for new migrants to settle into Australia.

Although by that point in time I could communicate well enough, I still felt some nervousness talking to people as I often had difficulty understanding what people said.

I was very eager to start working again in Australia and found my first sales assistant job selling vacuum cleaners in Preston, Melbourne.

As there are many Mandarin Chinese speakers in the area, my ability to speak Mandarin Chinese was an advantage. I was there in the little shop front full time, learning everything about vacuum cleaners and trying to sell the top range.

I did well as a newbie and I enjoyed some aspects of the job but there were a lot of downsides. The business was dodgy as they paid only $100 cash for a day’s work, and the owners were sometimes rude and made inappropriate comments.

I left after 3 months and with a community lawyer’s help I was able to retrieve all the wages and entitlements I was owed.

Take that, dodgy vacuum people!

In 2016, I became a call centre customer service rep for BUPA, the major private health insurance company.

Looking back, I have no idea where I got the courage to work at a call centre job full time…. I hated talking on the phone!

Speaking in a second language is hard enough in person!

I just remember being very excited to work for a big corporation for the first time, as good training and benefits were provided.

I was determined to learn how to communicate better and the training was very helpful in learning to speak to all kinds of people.

Many aspects of my English improved drastically, and I received a lot of good feedback for my performance, from my supervisor and customers.

Unfortunately, I suffered from racist abuse on the phone and eventually quit the job for my wellbeing.

Valerie self created- experiencing racism at the call centre.

It was very surprising to me as I hadn’t experienced much racism in Australia.

After experiencing racist abuse, I started to fear attacks might occur every time the phone rang and had an increased fear of being attacked in real life.

I strived to speak better and pronounce more clearly almost every day, but after the abuse I began to resent my accent and felt like a second-class citizen.

I was asked frequently if I was working from an overseas call centre, some people would ask to speak to another person as soon as I greeted them, and perhaps over 30 people shouted at me because they didn’t like how I spoke and were very insulting.

It is still very uncomfortable to think back to that horrible period of life but fortunately I have healed and forgiven everyone that was involved (including me).

Overall, I feel thankful and fortunate that I worked in that call centre as it led me to dentistry!

At the call centre, one of the common inquiries was about how much benefit a member can receive for dental treatments. It was very intriguing to read about all kinds of dental procedures, such as veneers and mouthguard.

I didn’t have any work experience in medical fields, but I decided to give it a go. Luckily, you don’t need a Dental Assisting certificate to work at a dental office so I managed to start my first dental assistant (DA) job without knowing anything about dentistry and even without stepping into a dental clinic in Australia.

Valerie at her first Dental Assisting job.

Expectedly, the learning curve was very steep in the beginning. I wrote in my diary after working as a DA for 5 months:

“It has been very overwhelming. The challenges of the job include, but are not limited to: a lot of blood, unbrushed teeth, distressed people; we have to know all the 300 different kinds of instruments, all look very similar; and we have to know how to interpret the dentist’s hand gestures and head movements.

A horizontal wave might mean “adjust the light” or “show me the X-Ray”, and a vertical wave might mean “give me a piece of gauze” or “don’t worry about the suction now”.

As a clumsy person I have extra challenges: I try not to bump into anything near me; not to spill or drop anything in my hands. The worst thing I’ve done was to accidentally stab a 72-year-old patient’s face with a blunt tip syringe during a surgery.

I hope this won’t happen again.

I started enjoying working as a DA very much as my experience and dental knowledge grew.

Valerie (Valbo) the Dental Assistant (Self created).

It was such a challenging and rewarding job – I felt excited going to work everyday and thought I had found my calling.

I worked for a few different clinics with different standards and different atmospheres. The last that I worked for was extremely professional and caring, and the people there all had good senses of humour.

It was a great work environment, delivering top notch dental care.

You felt like you were making a big difference in peoples lives working as a team: helping people feel comfortable in the dental chair, providing personalised dental care and empowering/respecting patient in making treatment decisions based on their own circumstances.

I was so inspired by the dentists’ and oral health therapists at that dental practice that I decided to become an oral health therapist myself.

After taking many tricky exams and undertaking two university single subjects, I was accepted into Bachelor or Oral Health on the Charles Sturt Wagga Wagga Campus.

Valerie self created, working hard to get in to the Oral Health course.

I still remembered how thrilled I was when I received the offer.

There you have it, my past 10 years – how I came from Taiwan to Wagga, from Street vendor to oral health student.

Looking back, I realise I have faced a lot of unknowns and have had to work extra hard every time I took on a new challenge, but each experience lead to a better place for me.

Charlie Contributor Valerie Chen, her first time putting on the scrubs!

A final note from Valerie.

Finally, I’d like to give so much credit to my husband Leigh, for being my support team from day one and being our son’s primary carer during my full-time study at university.

I can’t do it alone!  

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