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Virak Tan - Wgtn Oppenheim Grant Recipient 2000

Virak Tan - Oppenheim Grant Recipient 2000



Trying to find a job is difficult for most people. For Tawa's Virak Tan it is even harder. He is blind.

Born in Cambodia, Virak was a two-year-old toddler when the Khmer Rouge deliberately tortured him, blinding him as a result. You'd think that would be an emotionally shattering, perhaps even life- crippling experience. But Tan is matter-of-fact when he tells you the little he knows of the few seconds that changed his life forever. He himself can't remember it happening; all he can ever remember is being blind. And, since he's grown up that way, he considers it far less of a handicap than others perceive.

His lack of vision is something that's been on his mind more than usual lately. The 25-year-old former refugee is concerned that it will make getting a job even harder. Virak recognises that employers want the best from their employees and he's ready to take that challenge with a double degree - a BCA in econometrics and finance and a BSc majoring in statistics from Victoria University.

"I have the right qualifications for what I want to do, but whether employers are willing to take me on is a different story," he says. "If I was in the situation of an employer I would give a blind person a chance, if they had the best qualifications, even if it were for a short-term trial. But while my own attitude is that anything is possible, I'm realistic - my choices may be limited."

Maybe enlightened employers will figure out that if a guy can manage not only to study, but excel in the academic stakes without sight, he can cope in the workplace. Virak has been an Oppenheim Trust recipient throughout his years at university. The Oppenheim Tertiary Education Trust supports blind and sight-impaired New Zealand students with the drive and talent to succeed at tertiary level by helping defray their costs - which, let's face it, no New Zealand student needs these days. Totally blind students need to have their course texts and materials translated into braille or cassette format, need assistance with transport and use talking computers. As Virak says, blindness isn't an obstacle to study - but it does mean everything takes longer.

Grants from the Oppenheim Trust kept Virak progressing in education after what he calls "not such a good start" to his education at Tawa College. "At secondary school I didn't do all that well, I didn't study as much as I should have, but at the tertiary level I really got my act together because I knew I had to."

The trust was set up 11 years ago by Dr Leonard Oppenheim and his wife Virginia on their 50th wedding anniversary and is administered nationally by the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind.

The Oppenheims, an elderly Waikanae couple, have both had to deal with sight impairment in their own lives. Dr Oppenheim is a Harvard graduate and was a professor of law in the United States for 40 years. He has been virtually blind for the past 30 and his own tertiary education was possible only because of a scholarship, having been raised in New Orleans by immigrant German parents on a working class income.

"I had to study and teach while blind, so I know the kinds of pressures on these people trying to study", Dr Oppenheim explains. "It's difficult for all students, but when you have a disability you have to work 10 times harder. It takes longer to get materials and then to access them, and it's even harder to gain employment unless you're outstanding. That's why we're keen to help those who have the motivation to do well. They need a break."

Virak says he feels very close to the Oppenheims - who live nearby at a Waikanae rest home. And he appreciates their kindness and vision. "They are wonderful people and very nice couple - it's hard to come across such nice people. I keep in touch with them. I phone up and see how they are getting on and visit them when I can. It's nice to give something back."

In total over $35,000 in education grants have been distributed to New Zealand students this year, but the Oppenheims say they are always keen for more people to contribute to the trust so that they can help still more sight-impaired students.

It was his fascination with numbers that gave Virak Tan the impetus to study economics and finance. "I've always been interested in figures, numbers and foreign exchange. I've just always been into numbers - they're essential in the real world."

He says he was "nervous" when he first started university, unsure if he would succeed. But then he noticed he wasn't the only sight- impaired student at Victoria. "There were quite a few others, and some of them were doing things not as difficult as the course I was doing. I realised I was prepared to take on a challenge. It was very hard, but I have a lot of determination."

The same qualities must now come to the fore as he door-knocks financial institutions for his first job. Lacking in neither perseverance nor qualifications, Virak has the ability to handle the financial industry. It's just a question as to whether they have the open-mindedness to accept him.

If you would like to know more about contributing to the Oppenheim Tertiary Education Trust or creating a trust of your own, contact any member of the Funding Development team or contact the Treasurer, Frank Claridge.




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