NPSIA Summer Work Profile – Vihara Dharmaratne, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

This post is part of a profile series on NPSIAns and their summer work experiences. If you have any questions for the student profiled, please refer to their contact information at the bottom of this post.

Name: Vihara Dharmaratne

Workplace:Department: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC)
Sector: Policy and Strategic Direction
Directorate: Strategic Policy Directorate.

Position title: Policy Advisor

NPSIA cluster: Conflict Analysis & Resolution

Position obtained through the Carleton co-op process?: Yes

Undergrad school(s): Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi

Undergrad major(s): B.A. in International Studies (Summa cum laude), B.A. in Spanish (Summa cum laude)


What is your commute to work like?

I live in downtown Ottawa and work at Terrasses de la Chaudière in Gatineau. So I use both OC Transpo and STO to get to work. When I lived in Carleton residence, I took the O-Train to work..

How would you describe the dress code at your work?

Something decent/dressy from Monday to Thursday and casual on Friday. However, there’s no strict dress code. Sometimes it depends on what your team wears and you go along with that..

Are there many other NPSIAns at your workplace?

Quite a few NPSIAns and Carleton students work at AANDC.

Most are co-op students and some have indeterminate positions. It’s nice to make friends with new NPSIAns at AANDC that you haven’t met at Carleton.

What are the lunch options like nearby your work?

I bring my own lunch, because it’s the healthier option. But there are lots of options to eat out as well, which I do with colleagues from time to time with colleagues from work or NPSIA. There’s a Marcello’s inside the building which is convenient for most people, but like I said earlier, I prefer to bring my own lunch. In the summer you can eat outside, and you can also eat inside the building, at the “Zen garden.” Most floors also have nice dining areas. Another option is to walk to Portage and eat with friends who work at ESDC or DFATD. They have a large food court there.

What is your favourite part about your job?

My favorite part of the job is having the freedom to be creative and innovative. One of my favorite files is policy innovation and I have learned so much since I joined my team.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

My job also entails working closely with the senior management of AANDC. So it is always expected that the work I do is high quality work. It’s not a big challenge once you get used to it, but you have to be constantly aware that your work will be seen/used/read by the Deputy Minister or by the Assistant Deputy Ministers. Of course, my supervisor will have to approve the work I do before they see it, but if I don’t do a good job, I won’t get such assignments in the future. So the challenge is to maintain the quality of the work over time.

What is an average day like for you?

It varies. Because I am the most junior member of the team, I work with pretty much everyone in my team, including the Director. So the work I get can range from simple tasks like proofreading a policy paper within a couple of minutes to leading a month-long exercise with all sectors and regional offices across Canada. I like to get things out of the way as quickly as I can, so I always tend to finish my work a lot earlier than the deadlines. Typically I have about 10 different things to worry about during the week, so I prioritize.

How much is your hourly wage?

If you’re a Master’s student, you should be getting the highest amount you can get as a co-op student, because your level of education counts when deciding how much you get paid.

Is your workplace fully bilingual, or does it favour English over French (or vice versa)?

My workplace encourages its employees to use both official languages.

What are some exciting things happening in your workplace right now?

Lots of exciting things related to Policy Innovation are happening at my shop. My colleague and I are leading a project where we bring speakers from other government departments to talk about policy innovation in their respective departments. Because it’s really informal, educational and engaging, with animated discussions, our project is quite popular in the department.

What surprised you the most about your workplace/position?

Although my position is an entry-level position, I was surprised about the duties and responsibilities I have. Because I love the work I do, I don’t feel like I am being overworked.

Are you also taking classes (NPSIA, language training, etc.) and/or studying abroad this summer?

I take free online courses related to Policy Innovation and put it in my learning plan. Also trying to learn French on the side.

Which NPSIA course best-prepared you for your position?

While the things I studied aren’t really used at work, I must say that having to write a lot of papers at Dr. Findlay’s Disarmament and Arms Control class helped me maintain my writing skills that I use at work right now.

What sort of work experience did you have before this position?

Because I didn’t take any breaks between school, university and grad school, I didn’t have a chance to work. I mostly worked at my university and then worked as a teaching assistant at Carleton. And an internship with Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) for a few months. I had done some extra curricular activities including being part of a not-for-profit organization in North America.

What are your hours like?

It depends on your boss and how much work you have for the week. I was allowed to choose and my hours are pretty flexible.

Looking back, is there anything you wish you would’ve done differently in your job search?

No. I’m really glad where I am right now and all the opportunities I’ve been presented with.

What is some advice you’d give to a student hoping to get hired/intern at your workplace?

Initially, as an international affairs major, I wasn’t keen on applying to AANDC for a co-op. But knowing how difficult it would be to get hired right away by popular departments among NPSIAns like DFATD or places like CSIS, I wanted to be more strategic; I am actually glad that I applied to AANDC, because I really enjoy the work I do. I could be doing the same work in, say Australia, and call it “international.” So I’m not too worried at the moment that I’m not doing something that is directly related to my major.

My advice for someone hoping to get hired is this: If you get one co-op term, work hard and get re-hired. If your team tells you that they can’t bridge, try to see if you can finish your co-op in a different team or sector where there might be a bridging opportunity. Also, if you work where I work, you will get a lot of transferable skills, so you can still move to a different department in the future.


Have any questions for Vihara? 

You can send her an email at and check out her LinkedIn profile.


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