Now that she has graduated from the University of Otago Faculty of Dentistry in Dunedin, New Zealand, oral surgery major Oripa Waqa plans on returning home to Fiji, where she not only will be the first female oral surgeon specialist in that nation but also in the wider Pacific Islands.
Waqa, who earned a Doctor of Clinical Dentistry degree from the dental school, will work at her undergraduate alma mater, Fiji National University. Its College of Medicine, Nursing & Health Sciences is located beside a teaching hospital in Suva.
Three years ago, Waqa came to New Zealand as a part of the New Zealand Scholarship program, which offered citizens from developing countries an opportunity to study at a New Zealand educational institution or university or at a Pacific university.
“Coming to New Zealand, the biggest culture shock was the cold weather. Now when I go home, I struggle in the heat,” said Waqa.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Waqa decided to apply to Otago to pursue her dream career. But the path to oral surgery wasn’t always clear-cut, as she initially was torn between medicine and dentistry.
Waqa opted for dentistry because she thought it might give her a better work-life balance. But she soon realized that wasn’t quite true, especially when she would be called in to work in the middle of the night during the cold Dunedin winter.
“It’s a hassle trying to get used to it, but I’d never change it for anything else. I enjoyed every bit of it,” Waqa said. “I just love New Zealand. Working at the hospital and then the university, you just have such good support.
Oral surgery is the “adrenaline rush specialty,” Waqa said, noting that one day you could be dealing with oral cancer, and the next you could be helping to correct facial trauma after an accident.
The specialty is predominantly a male-dominated field, and while being the first woman to specialize in oral surgery in the Pacific Islands is a big deal to her, she says that her main focus in on improving the quality of dental care in her country.
“Since I’ve learned so much from here, I would like to go back home and share the knowledge and do my best to upgrade not only the skills, but the equipment and the instruments we work with,” she said. “My eyes were really opened when I saw the technology here. There’s a vast difference.”
Waqa hopes to establish a clinic in Fiji modeled on those she has seen in New Zealand that will be able to deliver high-quality dental care and oral surgery to her community.