By: Raina Debrouwer

Growing up in Cape Breton, Jillian McKenzie loved to dance. It was her passion – something she spent most of her waking hours doing, seven days a week. She loved the discipline required to be a good dancer, particularly in ballet. She also gravitated towards the pageantry of it all – the necessity to present yourself in a very specific way.

Ballet student in window
Photo by Movita Beaucoup

Once Jillian moved to Halifax and became a teacher of dance through the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, she found yet another element of dance she loved.

“Through teaching dance, I learned to have an eye for tiny details. It’s all about picking something apart so you can build it back up. Public relations is just like that.”

Jillian’s path to public relations (PR) was a winding one. She started her university career at Dalhousie University, pursuing a bachelor of science. After a year in the program, she realized it wasn’t a fit. So Jillian focused on teaching dance and spent her summers back in Cape Breton in a radio brand ambassador role.

“I was one of the people that drive around, give out radio swag and interact with the community – a ‘cruiser girl’. That was my first foray into community relations.” The role seemed to attract people with a specific skillset, because Jillian first heard about the Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) Bachelor of Public Relations (BPR) program through a colleague at the radio station. “I always say that I fell into PR, because I started that job as a fun summer job and it led me to this career. Once I looked into the program, I realized it really connected with my strengths and interests.”

Jillian was motivated further by what she heard about the co-op program from another friend. She told her it was an opportunity to get a piece of real-world experience – to really dig into your education in a practical way. She also told Jillian that breaking up the degree with work terms kept classes interesting and reaffirmed their relevance.

Jillian started the MSVU BPR program in September 2019, and it didn’t take long for her to realize she’d made the right call by starting the program. She found all of the courses to be useful and her professors to be highly invested in student success. She felt like she was getting an education in public relations, yes, but in business as well.

“Writing, critical thinking, business practices, public affairs, transparency in communication – all of these principles have already served me so well in my career. And the pace of the program just makes it feel like you’re steadily putting pieces of a big puzzle together.”

Heading into her first co-op experience, Jillian didn’t have a concrete plan. She knew vaguely that she wanted to try government work, as she’d dabbled in both private and non-profit communication. But aside from that, she used her gut as her guide.

“I just went with what felt right at the time. Especially in the interview process, I just felt things out. I knew that yes, employers were picking me – but I was picking them, too!”

Jillian’s first co-op was at Veterans Affairs Canada. It was a remote position because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as Junior Content Advisor on the web team, this was a particularly exciting time to join. Website communication was so important because everyone was staying home. Clear internal communication was considered equally important. One of Jillian’s major project was leading an internal spotlight series to help employees connect with one another during lockdown.

“Through this experience I was able to experience office life a bit, even if from my home. It was my first entry into an office atmosphere and it was such a positive one.”

Jillian’s next co-op was at Public Services and Procurement Canada, another virtual position. In this role, Jillian worked with small businesses in Atlantic Canada to procure goods and services. She felt fulfilled working with local businesses, especially during a time with so much uncertainty for the demographic.

Jillian’s third and final co-op, at Communications Nova Scotia, was her first experience going to work in an office. This change in location went a long way in making Jillian feel like a fully integrated part of the team. Highlights from this co-op included sitting in to watch the House of Assembly in session, seeing the communication materials that she developed be disseminated to Nova Scotians, and being mentored in a meaningful way by her colleagues.

As her co-ops concluded and Jillian quickly approached graduation, she wasn’t sure what her post-graduation plan was. She reached out to contacts from her former co-op jobs to ask about opportunities, which produced some leads, but had nothing concrete lined up.

“I didn’t have a detailed plan, but I just kept thinking: ‘I don’t want to close doors’. I never wanted to eliminate an opportunity based on what sector or organization it was in. I think that’s why I was so open when the opportunity with Shannex came up.”

As part of Jillian’s Advanced PR Management course in her final semester, she was instructed to deliver a pitch presentation to an external client outlining a communications plan relevant to their business strategy. Working with two other group members, Jillian met with Shannex (a large retirement and assisted living corporation) with a plan to promote their Bedford Square development. According to Jillian’s professor, Roy Jamieson, the group nailed the presentation.

“The judging panel, including representatives from both Shannex and faculty, recognized the group for their understanding of the client’s needs and expectations and they identified Jillian in particular for her excellent oral presentation, understanding of key publics, and great interpersonal skills,” said Roy.

When this project came to a close, Shannex promoted an upcoming job opportunity that they had to the class. Then they contacted Roy and asked him to encourage Jillian to apply specifically.

“Initially, I was unsure if I would apply,” said Jillian. “I thought they were just trying to be nice! There were a lot of layers in the project – we really had to work through the complexities of Shannex as a team. It made it really interesting. But I figured I would have a lot of competition from industry people for this job.”

Stiff competition or not, Jillian was successful in landing the role: “I graduated on a Friday and went to my new job that Monday. It was a very special moment for me.”

Jillian is now a Communications Officer of Engagement at Shannex. Her role is fast-paced and complex, reflective of what initially drew her to the organization in class. She uses a lot of the knowledge she gained in her co-op roles, doing things like communications planning, internal and external communication, brand work, web design, social media and lots of writing. Jillian has even had the experience of working with a current MSVU co-op student in this role.

“It’s been spco-op student smiling in the workplaceecial to relate to co-op students and share experiences with them. There are so many BPR graduates working at Shannex. So, so many of them went to MSVU. It’s a community.”

When asked for advice Jillian would give people considering the MSVU public relations program, she recommends researching the program to understand if it’s a fit for you. If you do think it’s a fit, she encourages you to go for it — you’ll learn so much and meet incredible peers and professors along the way.

Jillian’s advice for students in the BPR program approaching graduation is to think about what interests you in the program and follow that path. She also recommends reaching out to your former co-op employers to learn about opportunities, and checking in with fellow BPR students to learn what they’re doing.

Jillian still teaches dance now. She still loves the discipline, gravitas and teamwork elements of the sport. But most of all, she loves working within her community and making connections.

“The connections you make in life are so important. This could be applied to dance or to PR. I hear about people getting jobs through their past connections all the time. Connect with people. You never know what will come of it.”