Opening Up

After one conversation kept David Manuntag from dropping out, he found a way to brew connections between students: have a cup of tea

Amie Filkow - 05 January 2017

For much of his first year of university, David Manuntag was enveloped in social darkness. He hadn't made many friends. He was unsure about his chosen major. It was as if a barrier stood between him and the constant flurry of activity and interaction on campus.

A few weeks before the end of the school year, Manuntag received a letter of academic probation: unless he raised his grade point average the following year, he would be forced to withdraw. He felt as if the world was closing in on him. Maybe this is what it meant to be in over your head, he thought.

Like many students who find themselves struggling, he kept the news to himself. His anxiety mounted.

On the bus several days later, Manuntag ran into a friend from high school. Maybe it was the neutral setting, or maybe it was his old friend's impartiality to his situation, but Manuntag sat down next to him and revealed what he hadn't told anybody: he was thinking about quitting university. "I just wanted to get it out," he says, recalling that day. His friend listened carefully and then said, encouragingly, "Just try for one more year. You don't want to look back and say you didn't try."

In 2013, the American College Health Association surveyed 5,000 University of Alberta students about their health and well-being. The survey found that, in the previous 12 months, half of all UAlberta students surveyed reported feeling that things were hopeless. Nearly two-thirds felt very lonely. More than 54 per cent felt overwhelming anxiety. And, perhaps most troubling, 8.5 per cent - equivalent to 3,400 of the university's nearly 39,000 students - had seriously considered suicide.

Most students arrive on campus with the notion of university being "the time of your life." But academic, financial, emotional and career pressures can take an enormous psychological toll on even the healthiest, highest-achieving student. Combine these with additional stresses such as living away from home, being an international student adapting to a new culture or a rural student coming to a large campus, and that original understanding can take on a very different meaning.

Manuntag understood that stress. He had been to that dark solitary place and had climbed out, thanks to that one conversation on the bus. The following year he improved his grades, got into business school and soon found himself leading the creation of a campus program that would help other UAlberta students in need of someone to listen.

For an entrepreneurship assignment, he created Unitea with his girlfriend, Maggie Tong. Unlike many other student groups, this one required no faculty references or affiliations and its basis was simple: just two people and a one-on-one conversation over tea. "When two people share an experience, like drinking tea, it's a lot easier to get on the same page, slow down and just start talking," Manuntag, now a software developer, says from his apartment in downtown Vancouver, where he and Tong live. "People are so often on their phones - they're only half there. With tea, the only thing you can have in your hand is the cup of tea, so it allows you to be engaged and listen."

Manuntag's first Unitea conversation was with Dylan Hanwell, then a first-year political science student from Pigeon Lake, Alta. Hanwell had made some connections through the debate society but he was struggling with the overwhelming size of campus. Finding something that resembled the tightly knit community he had grown up in was difficult. "I was like a little fish in a big pond. My high school graduating class had 48 people in it, so jumping into the 30,000-student pond was pretty scary," Hanwell says.

But during his conversation with Manuntag, Hanwell could already feel the impact of Unitea, how it could connect students and provide an outlet to express concerns, fears and the stresses of university life. "Meeting people on an individual level was really difficult, so having somebody available to have a conversation about whatever you wanted to talk about - I didn't know where else to find that," says Hanwell, who now serves on UAlberta's students' union as vice-president, external.

Before Manuntag graduated in 2014, he led Unitea's growth, recruiting more than 200 students, volunteers, mentors and people who donated supplies. The group raised funds and support from the school's Dean of Students and Office of Sustainability. Now, due to growing student interest, the university's Community Social Work Team leads the project. With donor support, Unitea can allow more students to develop their natural helping abilities, and create a campus where resiliency and connection are fostered and celebrated.

Sometimes one conversation is all it takes to encourage a student to keep trying. And sometimes that encouragement can save a life. To Manuntag, Unitea's simplicity is what makes it most meaningful. "Just having those little moments where someone really believes in you as a person, when they believe that you're a person that can do good, it can go a very long way."

Unitea is one way the University of Alberta supports student mental health. Many services and programs - from counselling to recreation - help students build resiliency and cope with setbacks.

To learn more about how you can help students succeed, lead and contribute to a healthy society, contact the Office of Advancement at 1-888-799-9899 or