“My uncle had a stroke and lost his speech.
“I realise now, with the training I’ve received at Flinders, that I would have been able to help him.”
Flinders University Speech Pathology student Fiona Pei Tsze Low, who is from Malaysia, has just won the prestigious Sir Eric Neal Award at the annual Merdeka Awards in Adelaide.
It is perhaps fitting that she is sat just a few metres from Flinders University’s Central Library as she talks about the importance of language, and her desire to provide the highly specialised help needed by those with verbal communication problems.
As she talks about her uncle, who struggled to speak without any professional help for the rest of his life after a stroke, it’s clear that, for Ms Low, speech pathology is very personal.
“In Malaysia there are not a lot of speech pathologists who can help people with speech problems,” Ms Low said. “My uncle was never able to access professional help and had difficulties for the remainder of his life.
“That inspired me to study Speech Pathology, and I now realise how much I could have done to help him – and what a need there is in Malaysia for this kind of therapy.
“Because of this, when I finally finish my studies I want to return to Malaysia and help to raise awareness so that more people can get the help my uncle didn’t.”
One of the things that made her stand out at the Merdeka Awards, Ms Low believes, is her fascination for Aboriginal languages and desire to help Aboriginal children with communication problems.
“I’m passionate about Aboriginal languages, and about looking at the sounds of these languages so that I can compare them to the sounds of standard Australian English and work out what that means for Indigenous education and Indigenous children,” she said.
“I have already done some voluntary work in this area, and also received a scholarship from the University of Queensland, where I was involved in a project to preserve Indigenous language.
“I find Aboriginal languages to be very different to other languages. That’s why I did my Honours at Flinders in Aboriginal languages and why I participated in the UQ program.”
When Ms Low accepted the Sir Eric Neal Award, she said it was a particularly proud moment for her parents, because, in a remarkable achievement for her family, she is the second Low sister to have taken the Merdeka prize.
“My parents were especially proud because my sister has also won this award,” she said. “In fact, it is because my sister studied in Adelaide that I chose to also come here.
“My parents have always encouraged us to do the things that we are passionate about, even if they are unconventional, so that was also a very important part of the story.”
Ms Low said the learning environment at Flinders, and support of her lecturers and fellow students, had helped her to learn much, both academically and culturally.
“I’ve really enjoyed my four years at Flinders. Speech Pathology has a small number of students, so it is a close group, and our lecturers are always really helpful,” she said.
“In Malaysia, it is a bit more hierarchical, so I feel very fortunate to have had that access to the University staff.
“I’ve also found that Adelaide is also a city that isn’t too quiet, but not too busy either, so I am able to have some fun while remaining focussed on my studies.
“I’ve learned so much since I came to Australia. I think I’m a lot more independent and my thinking has changed about many things.
“I’m also much more open-minded and aware of bigger picture issues.”