Humans of the Islands - Sam Manuela
Psychology Lecturer at The University of Auckland
My name is Sam Manuela. I am of both Cook Island (Rarotonga, Manihiki, Atiu) and European (Scottish, Danish) descent. I currently live in Papakura, Auckland and I am a lecturer in the School of Psychology at The University of Auckland.
You recently graduated with a Doctorate in Psychology, how/why did you decided to pursue Psychology?
As kids, we are often asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always said something like ‘a fireman’ or ‘a doctor’ or whatever occupation seemed aspirational for someone of my age and naivety. The truth was, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was more concerned about having fun with my family and friends.
I figured out that if I gave an answer that was expected of me, I wouldn’t have to sit through their life advice and I could continue playing with my friends. Even towards the end of high school where I was approaching the crossroads of making major decisions in what I would do as I entered adulthood, I was still unsure. I enjoyed biology at high school, so I decided to study it further at university and see where it could take me.
I enrolled into a Bachelor of Science majoring in Biological Sciences at The University of Auckland. During my first year of study, I had to take other papers in addition to the biology ones that would fulfil my major requirements. I used a very unconventional method to choose those papers.
I pulled out a prospectus and flipped to a page that had a list of subjects offered in the Faculty of Science. I then closed my eyes, circled my finger around the page, stopped and whatever subject my finger landed on was the subject I was going to take. My finger had landed on Physics, which was completely out of my comfort zone. So I looked at the next one down, and it was Psychology.
I didn’t know much about Psychology and thought that maybe I was going to learn about mental illness. However, I discovered that psychology was much more than that. My eyes were opened to a world that sought to understand the human mind and behaviour. I was introduced to theories and ideas that explained why under certain conditions someone would be less likely to help someone in danger, would be willing to hurt another person because someone told them to, would lie about things they saw even though they had no apparent reason to. I learnt about the structures of the brain and their functions, how we process visual information, sound, and ideas of how our memory works. The things I was learning were completely new and fascinating to me! I wanted to know more, so I changed my major to psychology and went all the way through to a PhD.
How does your Pasifika culture affect your identity and the way you see the world?
Having a blended background means I can often experience life in ways that are different to those that identify with a single group. In my own experiences, my mixed ethnic background means my appearance often leads to questions about my ethnicity, or often has me mistaken for a different ethnic group (I usually get Samoan or Māori, but sometimes Indian or Arab). Sometimes I feel like the brown guy in a white setting, other times I feel like the white guy in a brown setting. However, I think I will always be seen in the eyes of others of at least having some Polynesian heritage. As one person aptly put it: “I can tell that you’re White, but you’ve got something else in you”.
That something else is the Cook Islands and I am proud of it, just as I am proud of my Scottish and Danish heritage that my mother gave to me.
It has put me in a position where I have experienced both the privileges that come with being White and the challenges that come with being Pacific in a multicultural setting like NZ. It has given me an appreciation for the beauty that lies in the diversity our country and ensuring that diversity is reflected at all levels of society.
Who are your biggest inspirations and why?
My family inspires me with their hard work, determination, and their enduring support over all these years. They have sacrificed a lot for me to be able to go down this path and have done so with unconditional support. They have instilled in me a strong work ethic and an aspiration to do well for benefit of others.
I do my best to look for positive qualities in others that help them to achieve great things and draw inspiration from that. I’m inspired by the passion of entrepreneurs that are embarking on new business ventures, the determination of students to achieve the best grades, and the mana of those that stand up for what is right. There are inspirational people all around you if you look for the good in them.
What have been your biggest challenges and successes on your journey this far?
My biggest challenge on this journey was trying to maintain a healthy balance. Sometimes my social life would get a bit out of control where I’d find myself falling behind on my studies, and end up having to pull an all-nighter on an essay that I should have started weeks ago. Other times, I didn’t give myself any time to relax. I would get so focussed on my work that it became mentally and physically draining. The best thing for me was to treat me studies like a job. That meant I had set hours on campus, with breaks in between, and I had to make the most of the time I had. I gave myself deadlines to get things done and had someone to keep me accountable.
In terms of success, my degrees could be one measure of that. Getting through tertiary studies is a success in itself. However, I see my degrees as a symbol and acknowledgement of my expertise in certain areas. It is what I do with that expertise that is more important to me and how I would measure success.
For me, success is seeing our young people achieve to a consistently high standard in education; it is seeing our people in paid employment; it is families living in warm, dry and affordable homes; it is people having access to healthcare if or when they need it; it is seeing our communities represented at all levels of influence; it is seeing a reduction in ethnic disparities in mental illness, addictions, imprisonment, and negative health outcomes. Success for me is seeing our Pasifika communities flourish here in NZ. We all play a role in ensuring that success of our communities in some way, shape or form. My contribution to our collective success is the research I do on Pacific wellbeing and teaching that to our psychology students.
You are now a lecturer at The University of Auckland – what are your plans for the future/what do you hope to achieve?
I’m very fortunate to get a lecturing position straight out of a PhD! It puts me in a position to ensure the perspectives and needs of our Pasifika communities are represented and taught as a valuable part of our curriculum.
I’m part of a large project called The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) that follows the social attitudes, personality and health outcomes of New Zealanders over time. It is a 20 year long project that started in 2009 and has already produced an amazing body of research. I’m excited to see how our lives change over time and how we can use that information to ensure the health and wellbeing of our communities in the future.
In addition to the NZAVS, I will be doing my own research focussing on the identities, health and wellbeing of Pasifika peoples here in NZ. There is a growing body of work that has been done in this area, and this still a lot more to do! I hope that my research and teaching in this area will equip our students with knowledge they can use to benefit our communities.