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Walden Magazine // Jan 01, 2014

School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) Dissertation Award: Researching a Niche Population

January 2014—Dr. Sarah-Kate Hawkins ’13 was awarded Walden University’s 2014 School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) Dissertation Award for the scientific and intellectual merits of her dissertation, Impact of HIV and AIDS on Elderly Caregivers in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The PhD in Public Policy and Administration graduate chose the topic because of her volunteer work for Grandma Cares Partnership Program in Thailand, where she and her husband are based. The nonprofit serves HIV-infected and -affected families in Chiang Mai province by providing psychological and social support, along with educational opportunities.

As a volunteer, Dr. Hawkins saw firsthand that these families need assistance beyond what the nonprofit provides. She chose to focus her dissertation on grandparents who take in their orphaned grandchildren and examine their situations more closely.

The majority of these grandparents have worked as farmers since they were young, are approximately 80 years old, are not supported by a pension system, and continue to work. What her interviews revealed, however, refocused her own perception of their circumstances.

“In Thailand, there is no way to translate the word burden,” she explains. “Elderly caregivers view it as a joy to have children in their homes; they say they are blessed by Buddha to care for them. They never complain.”

Through personal interviews with 14 caregivers, Dr. Hawkins was able to understand that although their lives are difficult, their outlooks allow them to continue to provide for their dependents—and to find joy in their daily lives.

The interviews disclosed that the caregivers gained comfort and strength from Buddhism and cultural beliefs, which made it possible for them to continue to maintain homes for these children. Despite their positive outlook, however, she found many still need additional support from their community or the government.

“In Thailand, everything is about not losing faith,” she explains. “Respect is given to everyone, by everyone. Compare this to how local NGOs operate: separately.” Her findings prompted her to encourage local nonprofits to collaborate to ensure a wider, more positive impact in a community.

Her dissertation committee was made up of chair Dr. Mark Gordon and committee members Dr. Frances Goldman and Dr. Wendy Andberg. “Dr. Hawkins is a consummate researcher,” Dr. Gordon says. “She was able to suspend her judgment and allow the data to tell the story.”

She also made a point to listen to her advisors, he explains, incorporating  their feedback, keeping them updated, continuing to do her own research, and, he adds, reporting her findings in a complete and compelling way.

“By the time the oral defense is scheduled, our students need to be the most knowledgeable people in the room,” he continues. “She absolutely did that. She was teaching us during the oral exam; she was the expert in the room.”

About the School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) Dissertation Award

The School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) Dissertation Award is bestowed upon Walden graduates whose dissertations reflect excellent and appropriate original research and outstanding application of concepts and analysis tools. The award is based on scientific merit, novelty and significance or intellectual merit, style, and contributions to the field.

Read about the School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) Dissertation Award.