Interview with Serena Cassidy Nova Scotia Department of Health Promotion and Protection

Last summer, Serena Cassidy worked as a policy research associate for Voluntary Planning, a citizen’s policy forum, where she focused on the relationship between citizen engagement, community development and service delivery. A graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Cassidy is currently participating in the Nova Scotia Public Service Commission’s CareerStarts program and is also a member of Governext, a network for young public servants. She sat down recently to talk with senior writer Lisa Williams, about her interests in health, social and educational policy and her ambitions as a public service young achiever.

Q. What was it about the Masters Program in Public Administration (MPA) program at Dalhousie University that interested you most?

A. Originally I decided that once I had completed my Bachelor of Science degree that would be it. I was going to stop there and not complete another degree. I began working at NSCAD University (a university of the arts in Halifax) in the Office of Vice-President Academic, where I gained experience working in the public sector from the service side, as universities deliver so many services. While there, I got to work with the director of human resources and to see the service side, in addition to the business side. As a research and office assistant, I worked in the midst of both of these areas.

Working there, I realized I wanted to do more, that I wanted to no longer be just an observer in the service chain. I wanted to actually participate in the development of policy in the system. I had a friend who was in the MPA program at Dalhousie, and every time she saw me, she said, “You have to try to get into this program.”

Eventually, I was nominated by my supervisor at NSCAD to attend the Lieutenant-Governor’s symposium in Nova Scotia for women in leadership. There I met [astronaut] Julie Payette and various women who were ambitious, willing to take risks, and pursue what that they wanted to achieve.

With only a week before the application deadline, I decided to apply for the MPA program, and that’s how I started my degree. I started it part-time because I had a full-time job in the public sector. Once I took an MPA strategic management course, I realized this was what I could see myself doing. I could also see myself working in government on policy, and that’s when I knew I would pursue the degree full-time.

Q. It sounds like the women in leadership symposium made a big impact on you. Are there mentors or role models that you look to for guidance?

A. Yes. My first mentor was a young professor at Dalhousie, who was working on her career and making a difference in the lives of her students. She was my mentor as part of the women in leadership symposium.
As part of the MPA program, I met my current mentor; her name is Jennifer Palov. She works as a director in the provincial government, Department of Justice. She’s given me tips with respect to my career, and she’s been beneficial in helping to motivate and encourage me to contact people (in senior positions).

For example, she encouraged me to set up a meeting with the director of the Nova Scotia Public Service Commission. She’s been really encouraging in that regard, helping me to build the confidence to reach out and develop networks and contacts that I might not normally connect with.

Q. At your presentation at Lac Carling with the other panellists (including Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion), you mentioned your peers who were on Facebook and participating in online communities. One of the criticisms of government is they’re not reaching out as much as they could be. What more do you think they could be doing to attract younger people to the public sector?

A. I think that question has to be posed to a group of young people to see what it is they want, or how they want to interact with government. I think that using the Internet, e-portals, Web forums, even setting up an e-mail service where you can receive e-mails about what’s happening in government, are useful tools in reaching young people.

I see friends going through 30 to 40 e-mail messages in just minutes. If it doesn’t grab you in a few seconds, then you’re probably not going to come back to it, just because there are so many other e-mails that you have to look through and there are so many other demands of your time.

I’m not necessarily saying I could see the government on Facebook or Youtube, but they could certainly use those types of social networking tools, as that software’s already available, in order to try to connect with more young people.

Q. In your presentation, you mentioned the Australian government’s Web site. What is it about the work they’re doing that you like?

A. I like the fact they have a dedicated capacity for citizen engagement. There’s actually a department that is specifically geared towards citizen engagement and they have e-portals. As a citizen, you can look (through these e-portals) and it lists the different ways you can be engaged: click on a link to comment, read information on a specific subject; basically, you can provide input from the comfort of your home. I think a lot of people today are busy; to have the ability to connect over the Internet is a great tool for government.

Q. You’re interested in public health policy and you’re a member of your local community health board. What is it specifically about this field that you want to be involved in?

A. When I first started my degree, I thought I wanted to be an HR consultant because of my experience learning about human resources at NSCAD. However, as part of the MPA internship last summer, I had the chance to work on community development and citizen engagement issues.

I realized that health, and the determinants of health, is so broad: every single one of us is impacted by health in some way. At the end of the summer, I attended the Atlantic Summer Institute for Healthy and Safe Communities, which was really interesting because it emphasized the link between community safety and health.

From that experience, I decided I wanted to be more involved in health policy because it has a significant impact on all citizens. I decided to apply to my local community health board and was accepted. Since then, I’ve really grown and developed my knowledge of the health field. And the more I delve into it, the more I realize that it is definitely something I could spend a good part of my career working on.

Q. You’re involved with the Writing Centre at Dalhousie…

A. My writing career actually goes back 10 years. I started out working with the Black Educators Association, which provides after-school services to youth in the community. While there, I was a writing specialist and reading tutor, and from that I developed a love of writing. I enjoy teaching and encouraging students; it seems to be a common thread that I have always picked up on.

When I started my MPA, I saw an ad for a writing tutor at Dalhousie, which I applied for. In that role, I provided students with guidance on how to write; many times students are intimidated by writing. If they’ve received some negative feedback, they often internalize it. Students often think writing is easy. They don’t realize that it’s a very organic process, and that sometimes you have to write something three or four times over. You have to edit it, and allow yourself time.

Working at the Writing Centre allowed me an opportunity to contribute, to help encourage and support people in their writing. We’re a more informed society today, and I think having those writing skills really helps make people better citizens.

Q. With respect to the writing you like to do, is it more on the research side, or creative writing?

A. I do a little bit of both. With my MPA it sort of crowded out the creative writing. I write poetry when I get a chance. When I was younger I would write stories and start a chapter here and there, and even now in my head I think it’d be nice to write a book on passing subjects that come to my mind. It’s nothing I can be specific about because it changes over time, but I enjoy both aspects of writing. Policy writing is a bit different because you can’t be as creative.

Q. What’s next for you and where do you see yourself going in terms of the work that you want to do?

A. I plan to work for the federal or provincial government, on health, social or educational policy. I plan to continue to volunteer, no matter where I live. When you’re talking to people face-to-face, you also hear what their concerns are, and those concerns are important for informing government policy.

Lisa Williams is senior writer with She can be reached at [email protected]

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