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Thursday 11 May 2023 12:49pm

Lua Rasmussen McNeely image
Lua Rasmussen McNeely (right) pictured with her grandmother.

She has been “rolling with it” all her life, but a string of happy accidents has helped Lua Rasmussen McNeely find her calling.

She will graduate with a Bachelor of Dental Surgery on Saturday, a degree Lua says she “sort of tripped and fell into”.

Lua was brought up by her grandparents in Samoa, where she says life was “dreamy”.

After high school, she did a university preparatory year at the National University of Samoa, where she was offered a Manaaki New Zealand tertiary scholarship to study at Otago.

“There wasn't much choice involved; it was what was on offer and I decided to roll with it. This is a recurring theme in my life.”

She did a Foundation year at Otago, which helped her navigate her new environment.

"I was in a new city, with new people, and I was in a new academic setting.

“All these changes were daunting, stressful, and happening simultaneously. It was helpful being able to adjust in an environment designed to help you adjust.”

Health Science First Year was when “the rose-tinted glasses of foundy were removed," Lua says.

“I speak very candidly about my time in health sciences first year, because why try to romanticise a notoriously difficult experience? I gained twenty kilograms and messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also struggled with feelings of self-doubt as she adjusted to the new learning environment.

“As a decent achiever in the small pool of students I was accustomed to, I found myself struggling to swim in the ocean of students who studied in Aotearoa and internationally.

“It makes me sad to think about the peaks and valleys of my mental health during health sciences first year, particularly when I think about the negative self-talk.

“Though I was surrounded by people who supported me and shared my struggle, the little voice in my head would always make me doubt myself.”

Lua was devastated to learn she was not selected to do medicine under her scholarship, as she had initially hoped, and took up dentistry instead.

“I have fallen in love with this profession. Yet prior to when we started being each other's guinea pigs in dental school, I hadn't been to the dentist since I was very young. But again, it was what was on offer, so I decided to roll with it.”

“And boy oh boy did I roll with it. I experienced so many amazing, heart breaking and back breaking experiences at dental school that have left a mark on my life.

“Call it God's plan or luck or a coincidence or my otherworldly ability to take things as they come, but I truly believe this is what I'm meant to be doing.”

Lua was also highly involved in Va'a o Tautai – Centre For Pacific Health's Pacific Opportunities Programmes at Otago (POPO), where she mentored students in professional health courses for all but her final year of dentistry.

In her last year, she did a POPO Internship at Pacific Trust Otago in South Dunedin, which she says was one of her biggest highlights in all of her degree.

“One of the goals I set before I went was to spend more time with the golden oldies.

“It had been three years since I went home to Samoa because of COVID, and I was aching to spend time with people who weren't twenty something.

“I was introduced to the wider Pasifika community in Ōtepoti, which is larger than I ever imagined for a small city at the bottom of Aotearoa.”

Initially motivated by the thought of making her family proud, as she progressed through her course she found herself finding a higher calling.

“I considered how Pasifika people are so painfully over-represented in poor oral health statistics, especially young Pasifika children.

“I don't want to become a dentist that just drills and fills cavities.

“I want to be a dentist who looks at the 'bigger picture' and educates, advocates for, and empowers my patients.”

After what she calls “an unintentional extended holiday”, Lua got herself a job as a dental officer working for the Ministry of Health in Samoa.

She calls the prospect of graduating “bitter and sweet”.

Her Papa passed away in her first year of university and she largely credits him, her mama and her 'aiga for her success at Otago.

“Although I'm the one who walks the stage and gets my name written on the expensive piece of paper, I do not claim it.

“I am only reaping the fruits that grew from seeds my grandparents, parents, aunties, uncles and family sewed for me.

“If I could, I would write their names on every achievement I ever had. Except my annual practicing certificate, because that would be illegal.”

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