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Learn while you work: Profile of a Public Administration internship

Posted by Miriam Breslow on August 4, 2016 in News

When Scarlett Kelly arrived at the School of Public Administration from Fredericton, she didn’t know much about Indigenous issues. “I was very interested in health and applied to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine before I entered Dal, so I knew a bit about Indigenous community health, but that’s it,” says Kelly. All that began to change when, in her first year of a combined Master of Public Administration and Master of Library and Information Studies, she applied for a co-op work term with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) as part of her internship course.

In the School of Public Administration (SPA), internships are designed to give students paid work experience that will prepare them for a career in the public service. Placements span government departments to non-profit organizations, in diverse areas such as immigration, risk management, education and energy. One Master of Public Administration student is spending his summer in the Privy Council Office working in part on new legislation including elections reform; another performs economic analysis for Environment Canada; a third studies business innovation for the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education.

Since 2010, 14 SPA students have completed co-op terms with INAC. Lindsay Visser, a professional development officer in the school, explains INAC’s goal to provide work experience for students looking to pursue careers in Aboriginal and Northern public policy. For Kelly, this had particular appeal.

“I took the co-op because I was interested in evaluation and complex problems,” says Kelly. “The learning opportunities at INAC that I heard about were also a major motivation.” In May, Kelly joined INAC’s Evaluation, Performance Measurement and Review branch in Gatineau, Quebec. “Before starting in the position, I had done some research,” she recalls, “but it didn’t match the vast amount of information that I got from INAC after I started. In short, I have learned a lot about Indigenous and Northern policy, especially the gaps in policy making and service delivery.”

Breaking down a typical day at her co-op, Kelly describes a busy, collaborative atmosphere full of meetings and research (her passion). Her job has two components: half of her time is spent evaluating the Emergency Management Assistance Program (EMAP) and Family Violence Prevention Program (FVPP). “The goal of both programs is to serve the Indigenous population,” she explains, “as emergencies such as forest fires and floods present grave danger to some communities, and family violence prevention aligns with the government’s priority of investigating missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.” Kelly’s tasks include developing guides for and attending interviews, reviewing literature on the issues and coding interviews for interpretation, among others. The goal of her work, she says, is improving efficiency and effectiveness both in the evaluation of these programs and in the programs themselves.

Kelly spends the other half of her time working on a major research venture, “Results and Reconciliation: an Exploratory Project”—and she does it with eight other interns from across Canada. The students are responsible for nearly all aspects of their project, which Kelly lists: “meeting agendas and chairs, research questions, methodology, interview guides, research-related housekeeping, analysis of data, and so on.” Working part-time on the project with multiple distractions from their evaluation roles, the interns must finish by the end of August when most of them will leave INAC. “It’s a bit ambitious; however, in such a supportive group I have no doubt that we’ll produce a publishable report at the end,” says Kelly. They aim to present their report to the Evaluation, Performance Measurement and Review Committee, chaired by the Deputy Minister. Kelly notes that the diversity of students makes the project a positive learning process: “Each of us has a different background and academic research focus, so each is able to contribute to the project.”

While Kelly’s work itself is educational, she also learns from the professional development opportunities INAC provides for its co-op students. Kelly notes that it is important to understand Indigenous and Northern culture, a unique aspect of the department, and many of INAC’s learning opportunities address this. There are Lunch and Learn sessions; daily Kumiks, or Councils of Elders; and Inuktitut language lessons. “It’s indicative of INAC’s desire to invest in young professionals and students,” explains Visser, who also notes that the governmental co-op program includes résumé and interview preparation, workshops to discuss the co-op experience and skill development opportunities.

Kelly has also learned more about the history of Indigenous issues in Canada, such as residential schools, the White Paper, and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Increasing her knowledge about these issues has prompted Kelly to question public policy and the relation between history and current issues.

Learning while doing is an obvious perk of work study programs like Kelly’s. “Internships are a very important part of our program,” explains Dr. Marguerite Cassin, a professor in the SPA who works closely with students throughout the internship process. “They attract students and it is a favourite part of their experience.” Kelly agrees: “It’s great to have SPA supporting us during internships,” she says, “from applying to experiencing the real world in the public service.”

Many graduates take up permanent positions in the organizations where they complete an internship or co-op. INAC is a good example, having hired several graduates of their co-op program or those of other departments. “I would love to work for INAC after graduation,” says Kelly. “Evaluation or any research or information management-related field would be great.” Regardless of the department, though, she intends to use the skills she’s learned to contribute to advancing public policy across the country: “I aim to come back to the Ottawa-Gatineau area to work for the federal government,” she says. “I believe that significant change for the better can happen at the federal level.”