Julia Arnott-Neenee is one of a kind. A recent graduate from the University of Canterbury, she’s landed scholarships across the globe, won finalist awards in competitions, led major research projects and secured positions at international award-winning advertising agencies. She gives back to her community through volunteering, humanitarian work and mentoring of fellow Pacific students. Despite her wonderful list of achievements, Julia is one of the most down-to-earth young women I have ever met. She loves a laugh, is an avid sportswoman, a travel bug, and enjoys her down-time when she’s all alone, curled up with a good book. She says her blended culture taught her how to accept her whole self, rather than choosing to be an academic over a sportswoman, or a professional versus a kind and conscious human being. We love her story, and hope you enjoy our talanoa with her too.
How would you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
Oooh I would use a food analogy! I’m like a Mellowpuff. At first glance there appears to be a hard shell, but when you crack it, you find out it’s soft and gooey inside. Then I’d hope you wouldn’t look at me funny haha! Relating that analogy to culture, I have my skin colour that you see on the outside – people can choose to identify me to a culture by way of my colouring. However, once they get to know me, they’ll see a mix of cultures that make up who I am. I’m part Samoan-Chinese, part British, and was born and raised in New Zealand. A Mellowpuff isn’t defined just by its exterior, and nor am I.
That makes perfect sense. How do you think that’s influenced you and the path you’ve chosen to take in life?
I’ve been on a journey to understand and blend my mix of (cultures) together, rather than making them separate from one another. I’ve been fortunate to be chosen for a range of incredible opportunities that allowed me to learn a lot about myself. I’ve learnt to present one blended front – my mixed cultural background into one. I’m not “just this” or “just that”, instead I’m “some of this” “some of that” and together “this is all of me”. I believe it’s so important to get to know yourself, and get to know what really makes you, you. Not what you can be stereotyped as, or what other people see you as from the outside.
In terms of the path I’ve taken, I’ve learnt never to cage or put myself into one box. There are many inspiring leaders who’ve shown us that our lives can have no boundaries, and that you can achieve anything when you set your mind to it. It’s about learning not to have any walls. I’ve found this out as I’ve gotten older through life experiences. It’s only when you give something a go, can you learn and grow from it. If you keep yourself in a box, if you allow that box to cage you in, you’re limited by its walls.
What experiences, do you feel, showed you how important it is to challenge those walls or stereotypes?
My mother set up the first cross-cultural consultancy in New Zealand representing Pacific Island families. She brought me up to believe I could reach for anything and that there was nothing about me, or my skin colour, that would ever stop me. She always made sure I knew that any door was open to me, and and dedicated her life to giving me every opportunity under the sun as a solo mother. I’ve been fortunate to be brought up in an environment where I’ve been shaped to believe my mix of cultures can open doors and broaden my horizons, not have them closed or narrowed down. I learnt I’ve never had to pick a side. I’ve never been told I can only do what other Samoans have done, or Chinese, or what other British people have done, or what other people from New Zealand have done.
If I had to choose just one experience alone, it would be Outward Bound. I was selected for the University of Canterbury Outward Bound Scholarship in my final year of study. It’s a 21-day course in the middle of nowhere. You’re grouped with 9 other complete strangers (though by complete chance my Intermediate school sweetheart was in my group, we hadn’t seen each other in 10 years – a major fright). Across those 21 days we had no phone, no hot showers, no chocolate or sweets, no coffee – basically nothing from the outside world other than the clothes you are told to bring (thermals mostly) and yourself. You’re challenged everyday to reach your potential through activities outdoors.
Everyday we woke up at 6am, did a 5km run and a swim in the ocean, and river kayaking (I found out I get really scared here). We had to work as a team everyday to help one another (it’s easy to be polite when you have a full tummy and a good night’s sleep, but it gets harder when you’ve slept on the bottom of a boat for only 3 hours). You laugh and you cry, and you spend 3 nights alone in the forest with a daily ration of a biscuit, carrot, some nuts and raisins. And at the end of it you complete a half-marathon. It truly was a once in a life-time experience, I recommend it to everyone! But what I really took away from Outward Bound was something I hold onto to this day. We were asked by our guides to strip away how we see ourselves from the outside, and to reflect on who we are, and who we want to be. On returning from this trip I completed my final University Marketing project on self–acceptance. It was a huge turning point for me to show how important it is to challenge stereotypes and just accept who you are. I made a video from this experience, that you can watch here.
How did all of this influence your choices within your career?
When I graduated from University I was selected for the Clemenger Group graduate programme in Auckland. I was placed at Colenso BBDO, an international award-winning advertising agency. I was the first ‘ planning’ graduate they’d chosen. I wasn’t too sure at the time what that really entailed, but I was grateful for the opportunity. Strategic Planning in advertising is like ‘the thinking before the doing’. It happens before creative ideas you see in advertising are developed and brought to life. It’s the process of connecting the dots, gathering information from research, strategy and planning techniques and the insanely clever people I was surrounded by, analysing it, thinking about it, and identifying key insights that you distill into a unique direction for a brand to found their advertising campaign on. I loved this process, it definitely makes me tick as a person, digging and identifying ‘golden nuggets’ of insight. This role definitely influenced me and my belief of how you never know what you might uncover, unless you dig a little deeper.
In my role today as a Qualitative Researcher, I specialise in trying to better understand people and tap into the minds of a consumer in Market Research. You hear it directly from the horses mouth, so to speak. You learn about the underlying reasons behind people’s opinions, motivations and behaviours. You develop particular questions to ask, and develop a qualitative method to ask them in . For example, we do a lot of face-to-face interviews, and I’ve learnt that to really uncover insightful truths from strangers, you’ve got to be asking the right questions, in the right way. You can’t go into an interview with a hypothesis in mind – every person has their own unique story, and unless we create a mind-reading technology, the only way you find this out is by asking.
How different do you think you’d be without those experiences?
As I’ve grown into myself more and more, I’ve realised I don’t actually fit one box, nor do I want to, because I am carving out my own space. That’s the beauty of being blended, and of being yourself. You don’t have to fit in anywhere, because you can create your own path by following the road less taken. If I didn’t have an experience like Outward Bound, I wouldn’t have found as much as I did about myself. One of my favourite quotes is by Ralph Waldo Emerson – “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions”. When you discover something you didn’t know about yourself, you grow as a person, and nothing can take that away from you.
I know you’ve spent most of your childhood and teenage years with your Mother, who’s British. How has that impacted your sense of connectedness to your Samoan culture?
There were a couple times where I did think, “Where do I fit into the Samoan culture? Where am I in all of this?”
I’ve had experiences where I’ve met people who are of full Samoan ethnicity that have said, “oh, you’re just a plastic, you’re not real” because I don’t speak fluent Samoan. I’m proud to be Samoan, and just because I don’t speak the language, doesn’t mean I’m any less Samoan. It’s a part of my story and part of who I am, and so for people to tell me I’m plastic, it’s really hurtful.
I’ve spent time connecting with my Samoan culture in my own way, through being a Pasifika Mentor at University, to learning about my Samoan heritage through my Dad and his family, to being a member of a PACIFICA Woman’s group in Auckland and being inspired by other mixed raced women and their stories.
I don’t believe it’s fair that anyone singles you out just because you don’t speak the language, that’s just not right. There are many people like me who are on their own journey to make a positive impact in challenging stereotypes of what it means to be Samoan. We should be supporting one another, not isolating one another.
If you could talk to young Pacific people from a blended background, what would your advice be?
First and foremost be yourself, and really understand what that means. Find out what makes you tick, what makes you feel excited and warm inside – and it doesn’t have to be the same thing as your family or friends. Once you’ve found that, be brave. You will find you come across hard – times in life, but don’t let that stop you, just learn and grow. Be bold, and own your blendedness, don’t choose between cultures, but be proud to embrace them all as one. My mother, my journey of self-discovery and acceptance and my life experiences allowed me to realise that my blended background is one of the best things about me. I hope others have their own journeys to know their blendedness is something to be cherished and never let go.
When you look back at your life in 20 years’ time, what do you hope to be most proud of?
I hope that I’ve made a positive impact on this world. In 20 years’ time, I would be proud of myself if I’ve played a part in making this world a little bit better than what it was before. I believe in working towards something that is bigger than myself, that makes a difference in society. Whether it’s working alongside a group of liked-minded people and creating change, or sharing my story that then inspired someone to follow their dreams. I hope to be someone who has made a difference in my own way.
We love Julia and think she is just… amazing! Thank you Julia for sharing your story. If you’d like to keep up-to-date with what she’s up to, you can find her on LinkedIn.