Leaving her whanau was the most important, and most painful, aspect of coming to Otago for her postgraduate years, says Dr Rawinia Higgins. The daughter of a Māori academic at Victoria University, Rawinia wanted to establish her own credentials before returning to take up academic and leadership responsibilities.
Her PhD at Te Tumu, looking at identity politics of the female chin moko, provided that opportunity. At Otago she was able to study and grow, “away from the pressures and expectations of whanau, hapu and iwi”. The trouble was, she missed them terribly.
“I had to create my own whanau environment at Otago.” Her support network included the PhD Office: “It was very personal, and really made you feel valued as you go through all the different administrative forms. They should give you a Diploma just for managing to enrol!” And Te Tumu became Rawinia's second home, where she carried out her PhD part-time while also teaching in the Department.
After several years balancing work, study and social demands, Rawinia knew she had to put in some hard yards to finish her thesis. And if Te Tumu was Rawinia's other family, then it came complete with extended whanau scattered around the country. While on research study leave from her teaching position, Rawinia was dispatched to Auckland to live with the Dean's mother for six months, “to get the thing written”.
“She was like a nanny, providing spiritual support, food and care. She let me complain about my thesis and laugh about it too. All I had to do was focus on my writing and I came back with a really solid first draft. I'll never forget that support she gave me,” remembers Rawinia. “It might not have happened without her.”
What would she do differently? “I'd have read quicker, disciplined myself more and written sooner! You have to get into the zone with a PhD. It's a marathon, not a sprint.”
She also believes it's wise to expect and allow your topic to change and evolve. “It's part of the process; you need to embrace it.”
Returning to Victoria University of Wellington, Rawinia says that having earned her PhD, she feels she can “hold my own” in the academic community that includes her mother. “My mother is very proud of my achievement though. She always makes a point of introducing me as Dr Higgins to others in the University, which culturally still feels a bit odd. I'm always saying, 'Oh, you can call me Rawinia'.”