From the Classroom to the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands community have embraced Griffth students who are delivering practical support around athlete performance and public health.

Griffith University’s sports science students are taking their knowledge and skills abroad to elevate the education, training and performance of Pacific Island athletes. 

Students stepped up to deliver their own gym and field-based exercise sessions to a range of ages and abilities.

Thanks to funding from DFAT’s New Colombo Plan (NCP), and the support of researchers Dr Llion Roberts, Dr Joel Garrett and Associate Professor Clare Minahan from Griffith’s School of Health Sciences and Social Work, students secured scholarships to fund their course-credited exchange. 

Dr Roberts said students were yearning for more opportunities to experience life outside of Australia during their study, but financial insecurity and fears around stalling study credit became barriers.  

“This NCP initiative allows the students an opportunity to receive credit whilst consuming unique experiences, put their skills to the test, embed themselves in local international cultures and know they are still furthering their degree,” he said. 

Students were encouraged to present their own information sessions around public health to the community.

“With this opportunity, we’ve addressed those finance and credit concerns by capitalising on our existing connections and the activity produced through the GAPS program.” 

An extension of Griffith’s highly successful GAPS program, the placement saw students design and deliver their own programs, gaining exposure and opportunities to support gym sessions, field sessions, warmups and running sessions. 

Dr Garret said whilst some placements tended to be more observational, this experience was “very hands on.” 

“It puts students outside of their comfort zone because it’s a unique environment, they really do have to step up, showcase their skills and take on the role of lead practitioners,” he said.   

Student supervisor and Bachelor of Exercise Science student Hannah Walker said working with the Cook Islands’ under 18’s National Netball squad was a stand-out experience.  

Students said the opportunity to partake in “unique experiences outside of your standard placement sites is incredible.”

“We were working with a range of ages, from 13-18 years, in this national squad and the athletes weren’t super familiar with conditioning sessions like the one we delivered,” she said.  

Miss Walker said their work with the National netball team not only equipped the coach with tools for further development, but gave athletes a taste of high-performance sport.  

“Taking into account the dynamics and context of the whole squad and lack of exposure definitely changed the way the program was delivered, trying not to push them too far while introducing conditioning and using terms that were similar with the way the coach had previously delivered training was definitely a spur of the moment adjustment,” she said. 

As well as working with different sports and organisations, students were embraced by locals and exposed to their unique island life.  

Dual Bachelor of Psychological Science and Exercise Science student Hannah Macleod said the team were witness to a cultural dance night and coconut show.  

“From the warm welcome in Rarotonga to being immersed in their close-knit community, I gained a better understanding of the values of family, community and heritage,” she said.  

Both students found the trip further fuelled their passion for exercise science and high-performance sport.  

“I found so much intrinsic value from working in populations and areas where community and resourcefulness are key values, and it’s sparked an interest for me to work in under-resourced areas where my qualification can make a significant impact,” Miss Mcleod said.  

Students were exposed to all elements of island life, including cultural practices and the natural environment.

“The opportunity to work on developing high performance sport outside of the Australian system not only benefits the sports and athletes but sets you up to be a confident practitioner with a broader perspective,” Miss Walker added.

Dr. Roberts emphasised the initiative’s dual focus on practical support and long-term impact. 

“By collaborating with our Pacific neighbours, we’re building on enhancing knowledge in sports science but also nutrition and public health, ultimately benefiting the entire community,” he said.  

Whilst most students undertook two weeks of placement, two Griffith honours students remained on the islands for 12 weeks, an entire credited trimester, to complete research data collection.  

The passionate team behind GAPS are determined to boost opportunities such as this through the NCP initiative, with intentions to deliver assistance to other countries beyond the Cook Islands.