This story was originally published in the Faculty of Management supplement.
Growing up in a literary town like Halifax, with its rich history of authors from Thomas Raddall to Maxine Tynes, Melissa Oldreive fell in love with words at a young age. It wasn’t that she pined to be a poet; she loved literature but also the practical application of language and how it can connect diverse people.
Connecting with people is a high priority for Melissa. After high school, Dalhousie was a natural choice. “It has a big population, lots of people to meet,” she says, “and a good reputation for quality education.”
She had long since decided to study English literature, but halfway through her freshman year she learned she could choose any area of emphasis. “I was drawn to Canadian Studies,” she says. She was anticipating a master’s degree that would bring her into public service. “I’ve always cared a lot about what goes on in the community, and I feel like I have a responsibility to give back to it.”
In third year, while tutoring at the Dalhousie Writing Centre in the Killam Library, she learned about the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. It was a revelation, a pathway to a management career in government. “It was an interesting switch from arts to management, from analyzing literature to this very practical, project-oriented work,” Melissa says.
After her introductory year covering basic management tools – statistics, human resources, accounting, organizational design – Melissa applied for a summer internship with the Nova Scotia Department of Energy. “It was a competitive process, so I learned about public sector hiring,” she says.
She was hired as a policy analyst to assist in the implementation of the Community Feed-in Tariff Program, a means of ensuring profitability for small, community-based energy producers and helping the province meet its ambitious renewable energy targets. “It was a real mix of program management and implementation, organizing policy documents and taking input from various stakeholders,” Melissa says.
It was her first real job, and it involved administering a major new energy program, changing the direction of the province’s previous energy tactics. She felt intimidated, being completely new to the energy field and lacking technical knowledge of renewable energy.
But that wasn’t what the job required. There were engineers on staff for that. Her role drew directly on the generalist education the MPA provides, along with finely tuned research skills. Melissa also relied on her ability as a writer.
Variety adds value
Many of the employees at the Department have MPAs, and their undergraduate degrees are in arts, business and science. “Public servants should represent the public and have varied backgrounds,” Melissa says.
“In my group, five of the eight are MPAs, all but one from Dal. Plus there’s me,” says Sandra Farwell, who directs the Department’s Sustainable and Renewable Energy Division. “They have a good grounding in policy, and they can go to any department. The general background is what we want. It starts often with a co-op placement and leads to long-term employment with us.”
That’s the exact path Melissa took. Sandra hired her – once again in a competitive application process – while Melissa was finishing school, to help develop the province’s Marine Renewable Energy Strategy. Melissa has moved from wind, a 2,000-year-old renewable energy technology, to an emerging one still in the research and development phase. It’s not unusual for civil servants to make such leaps, using the same skills in different capacities and transferring to new divisions or departments.
In her current role, Melissa once again draws on her ability to communicate with a variety of stakeholders: engineers, marine scientists, environmentalists and the energy industry. It is much like school. Within a single faculty, she experienced cross-disciplinary teamwork.
“I have a biology degree, and we have two English grads and several business and economics grads,” says Sandra of her team at Energy. “The knowledge on a specific file can be learned, but creating a policy is a skill we require. Dalhousie grads bring excellent research skills and the ability to write in plain language about complex technical issues.”
Making an impression
Kevin Quigley, who himself earned an English degree before his MSc in Public Administration and Public Policy, taught Melissa a strategy course after her summer internship. He was so impressed with her course papers he asked her to write an environmental, economic and public perception case study on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."
Fracking is a controversial method of harvesting inshore natural gas. He knew she’d been peripherally exposed to the issue at Energy. Her paper about fracking has been a tremendous teaching tool on risk assessment.
“She’s a role model,” Kevin says. “Being from Nova Scotia and staying here to provide public service. Two-thirds of our students are Nova Scotian, so to see that you can stay here and make a real difference – it shows what the MPA can do.”
Potential students often start considering the MPA when they reach the workforce after graduation. They have a job, but not a career. “The MPA structures their path into the public service,” Kevin says.
Melissa gives much of the credit for her success to her fellow MPA students, most of whom entered the program with more work experience than she had. “They provided contributions that pure academics might not have been able to,” she says, “and because it was so team-oriented I was able to learn a lot from people with different backgrounds.”
Now in the “real world,” she is still learning from others. Much of her time is spent picking the brains of scientists. “Sometimes it seems as though they speak a different language, and my job is to translate it into advice for the minister, senior management, taxpayers and ratepayers,” she says.
Kevin Quigley admires what Melissa has achieved and says it’s a testament to the power of internships, most of which are created by MPA graduates who want to give back. “Our alumni can have a huge impact on someone’s life and on the future of the public service by creating good internships,” he says. “We’ve placed every intern for the past eight years, and we count on public servants to create those opportunities.”
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