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Samoan grandmother Vic’s first Pacific Studies PhD graduate


13 December 2013 

Samoan grandmother Victoria’s first Pacific Studies PhD graduate

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A 60-year-old grandmother, Dr Esther Tumama Cowley-Malcolm, has become the first student to graduate with a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington’s Pacific Studies programme.

The Ohope Beach-based grandmother of one says she doesn’t take the achievement lightly: “I feel humbled and privileged. It’s an honour and for me it feels appropriate being an older student. I guess that’s what elders do: lead. I feel like I’m leading the way for others.” 

Dr Cowley-Malcolm’s doctoral research is an in-depth exploration of Samoan parents’ perceptions of, and responses to, aggressive behaviour in young children and the usefulness of an intervention tool named Play Nicely.

Dr Cowley-Malcolm says her doctoral study was a culmination of the different areas she has worked in over the course of her career—she started as a nurse, then became a teacher, worked on prisoner education and was a researcher in a university-based Pacific longitudinal study.

Although she has had a number of career shifts, Dr Cowley-Malcolm says a common thread in all her roles is an emphasis on serving the community. 

“Doing my PhD was an extension of my work ‘of service’ to a community I was raised in. It was a way I could give back and make a contribution.”

Dr Cowley-Malcolm’s research took her back to her home town of Tokoroa where she conducted on-going interviews with 18 Samoan parents of children aged one to three years old.

As part of the study, parents were shown the CD ROM Play Nicely which is a conflict resolution tool that guides parents and others working with young children through strategies and techniques for managing aggressive behaviour.

Parents were interviewed before and after ‘Play Nicely’ was used and, says Dr Cowley-Malcolm,  the findings of her study suggest they responded positively to the tool and came away with a greater understanding of their children’s behaviour and the impact their responses had on their children.

The findings suggest that for many of the parents in the study, their perceptions of aggressive behaviour in their children and their response to it is influenced by a mix of cultural values and beliefs from their Samoan heritage and their New Zealand upbringing.

Dr Cowley-Malcolm is a strong believer in the lessons Play Nicely teaches because they are based on sound research evidence and says she has learnt a lot herself through all her university studies including her PhD. 

“I think I’ve been a good mother but knowing what I know now I think I can be an even better grandmother!”

Play Nicely was created by researchers from Vanderbilt University in the United States.

With the help of her cousin and former Bro’ Town animator Ali Cowley, Dr Cowley-Malcolm is now considering adapting ‘Play Nicely’ to develop it into an interactive app aimed at young, tech savvy Pacific parents.

After completing a PhD most people would take a break but not Dr Cowley-Malcolm—along with developing the app she is also finishing a post graduate diploma in management of not-for-profit organisations.  


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