Working for the past two years as a project coordinator at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights — an organization run by former Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler — Nirushaa Senthilnathan's passion for human rights and policy date farther back than this professional experience.
“My parents came from a background where they were persecuted for being Tamil. There was a 25 year civil war in Sri Lanka, and the reason that they came to Canada seeking refuge was that they were persecuted during that war.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Nirushaa is acutely aware of the difficulties her parents overcame as immigrants. “I saw how much it took for them to give us the life that we had and how much my brother and I had to go through to get to where we are. So I think a lot of the things from my own personal background — and seeing a lot of the people around me not necessarily go to university or get white collar jobs — I think those are the things that really drive me to want to lift up the people around me.”
Growing up, Nirushaa also remembers listening to the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King and reading about historical atrocities like the Holocaust. “My whole life I’ve been very attracted to social justice issues,” she says,“This is probably why I’m in policy.”
Her interests led her to McGill, where she completed an undergraduate degree in psychology, followed by a graduate diploma in human resources. From there, she got involved with a number of Montreal-based organizations.
Because of her leadership on social justice and human rights issues, she was selected by the World Economic Forum to be a Global Shaper in 2016, eventually going on to lead the Global Shapers Montreal Hub for two years. “About a year ago, I got invited to travel to the World Economic Forum to meet Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab and to be trained on how to effectively run the Hub,” she shares.
Joining the Max Bell School's First Class
The caliber of the teaching staff at the Max Bell School was a key factor in Nirushaa’s decision to join the inaugural cohort of the MPP program.
During her first semester, she had a class that included a one-day simulation of the NAFTA negotiations between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Led by Laura Dawson, a foreign policy and international trade expert, the simulation resulted in the same outcomes as the real-world NAFTA negotiations. “The way Dawson framed the simulation and guided us through it actually ended up being what had occurred — her being a trade negotiator herself, it was really interesting to learn from someone who has hands-on experience.”
This, according to Nirushaa, is one of the great things about the Max Bell School’s MPP program. “We’re learning from past chiefs-of-staff, ministers, people who have actually done the policy work rather than just people who are pure academics.”
This semester, as part of the Policy Case study and Policy Lab components of the School's MPP program, Nirushaa has been studying efforts to develop and implement Canada’s first ever National Housing Strategy.
The structure of the Max Bell School’s MPP also appealed to Nirushaa. “When I saw that the degree was a one-year, intensive program, I was drawn to it. And I wanted something practical, less theory-based,” she says. “The Max Bell School absolutely offers that.”
Nirushaa’s classmates have also been an integral part of her MPP experience: “I think it’s really fascinating to have classmates who are so diverse — not only people from around the world, but also people with different educational and professional backgrounds. I think when we get into groups and come in with different perspectives, we can really tackle issues more holistically.”
She’s not exactly sure what the future holds for her professionally. “I think I'm the kind of person who reevaluates what I want to do next in life every few years,” Nirushaa ponders. “It’s constantly shifting to some extent.”
What’s certain is that Nirushaa will continue working on the problems that she has been focused on her whole life.
“Whatever I do, I want to be championing issues for people who are the most vulnerable, to focus on human rights and social justice,” she declares with confidence. “And I firmly believe that I’ll emerge from the Max Bell School with the skills I need to do exactly that.”