Western Carolina University’s Turner Goins has been involved in research focusing on aging among indigenous populations around the U.S. for nearly two decades, but her latest project is taking her outside the states and more than 8,000 miles away from WCU’s campus to New Zealand.
Goins traveled to Auckland, the largest city in that southwestern Pacific island nation, in early January with her husband and the couple’s young son to lay the groundwork for a research project she will undertake as recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Scholar award. She plans to take a qualitative approach in examining the meanings, beliefs and practices of healthy aging among a group of older Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Her project officially begins Feb. 1 and will continue through June.
Goins, WCU’s Ambassador Jeanette Hyde Distinguished Professor of Gerontological Social Work, was one of three WCU faculty members announced as recipients of Fulbright Scholar awards in early 2017.
Goins said the Māori make up 15 percent of New Zealand’s population, but the number of Māori over age 65 in that country is expected to increase by 122 percent by 2026, compared to 60 percent for non-Māori. A study was begun in 2010 to identify predictors of healthy aging among the Māori that included physical, psychological, health, social and cultural factors, but the results from that study contrast with the findings of a more recent one, she said. Her new examination of the topic is designed to complement the earlier research and yield more information on how older Māori conceptualize healthy aging and the factors they experience that affect healthy aging.
Not much is known about healthy aging among indigenous populations around the world, and Goins said her research findings can be used to improve clinical practice and health intervention efforts. Her project will involve conducting individual in-depth interviews among a group of older Māori who participated in the 2010 study.
Before her departure for New Zealand, Goins said her Fulbright project is the “logical next step” to extend to other countries what she has learned in working with American Indians and Alaskan Natives. In addition to shedding light on healthy aging among the Māori, Goins said she also is interested in the collaborative aspect of the project.
“Many tribes in the U.S. have asserted their sovereign rights around research and data ownership, with tribal internal review boards to monitor research and approve what’s going on in their communities. That whole issue seems more progressive in New Zealand, where there’s more of a partnership between researchers and the community being studied. I’m curious to see how that plays out in the academic world and for the Māori,” Goins said.
“I may want to carry out the same project with a tribe in the states to compare the results,” she said. “I think it would be interesting to ask the same questions of the Māori elders and American Indian elders.”
Goins said her project will take a “strengths-based approach” by focusing on the positive aspects of aging among the Māori. “I think there’s a lot to learn from those who are doing it well,” she said. “It’s just looking at the subject from a different lens to get the same answers. In the world of gerontology and public health, researchers are often rewarded by finding shocking examples of disease and other maladies, but I think there’s value in flipping that coin over and looking at factors that contribute to good health.”
With a background in gerontology and public health, Goins has been conducting community-based gerontological research with American Indian and Alaskan Native communities since 1999. Her working relationship with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians goes back more than 17 years. She joined the WCU faculty in 2013.
WCU’s two other Fulbright recipients are Mimi Fenton, professor of English, and Paul Worley, associate professor of English and director of graduate programs in English. Fenton traveled to Budapest, Hungary, in late December to undertake a six-month teaching and research project focusing on the works of English literary icon John Milton and the role of the public humanities. Worley traveled to the Mexican state of Chiapas last August to teach and conduct research aimed at helping speakers of the indigenous language Tsotsil Maya learn English, and teach English to others in that linguistic group. He will be working on his project through May.
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international exchange initiative sponsored by the U.S. government and is administered through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in which Goins, Fenton and Worley are participating sends about 800 American scholars and professionals to approximately 130 countries annually to lecture or conduct research in a variety of academic and professional fields.