Public Administration specialist at sea: ‘I understand The Hague side of the Royal Navy’
From assistance in the event of natural disasters to peace-keeping missions. As a communication adviser, Leonoor van Poelgeest goes to all those destinations where the Royal Navy are active. Why did she choose this work and how has her Public Administration study helped her?
‘No two days are the same for me,’ says Leonoor van Poelgeest from her marine base in Den Helder. She is Lieutenant 2nd class (equivalent to captain in the army and air force), and works as a communication adviser for the Royal Netherlands Navy. ‘I go on missions like the recent one to Abu Dhabi. My job as communication adviser is to inform local and international media about the reasons behind missions, as well as other issues. These might include safety at sea, maintenance of vessels or public events organised by the navy.’ She provides this communication on board ship or from her base in Den Helder.
'Strangers are sometimes surprised when they hear where I work.'
The navy would not be an obvious choice for many academics, as Van Poelgeest has seen from reactions. ‘Strangers are sometimes surprised when they hear where I work. You can see them thinking: what’s a woman doing working in defence? That’s why I want to make the kind of work I do better known. I see the effects of my work immediately in the media. It gives me a good feeling when something goes well, and, on a more personal note, I love the sea wind.’
How did you come to work for the marine corps?
‘When I was studying Public Administration, the navy started a pilot scheme – Defensity College – to interest students in becoming a reserve officer; these are members of the public who can be called up in times of need. I signed up because I was attracted by the idea of adventure and I wanted to contribute to society. After a number of different courses and study trips, we were assigned to work places that matched out studies and interests. I got involved with innovation at the Ministry of Defence and with healthy nutrition with the company caterer.’
The work suited her, so after graduating she applied for the vacancy for a communication adviser. That included the specialist training course at the Royal Military Academy, a fast-track route for people without longer term defence training.
'There are times when I suddenly hear that I will be leaving the next day for somewhere like Curaçao. My case is always packed and ready.'
What is it about your work that motivates you?
‘You get responsibilities here that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. During a mission you can make a difference in a world a long way from here. We were deployed , for example, to offer emergency aid to Haiti when it was devastated by natural disasters. From Curaçao we took care of the transport of doctors and of water and food. And last year I was part of a mission in the Strait of Hormuz near the Persian Gulf, an area where the situation is unsettled because of tensions with neighbouring countries in the region.’ Together with other European naval forces we were despatched to guarantee a free passage for international vessels there.’
You have to be able to handle unexpected and dangerous situations.
‘Yes, the work definitely is dynamic. So far, the missions I’ve been on have been relatively safe. It’s exciting to find yourself in a new environment every time, where all the structures, networks and colleagues are new. There are times when I suddenly hear that I will be leaving the next day for somewhere like Curaçao. My case is always packed and ready. But we also play an active part in the Netherlands. During the first wave of corona, for example I was deployed to help in the National Operations Centre that had to be set up very quickly. Defence sent personnel like doctors and logistics staff, and I helped gather information from all the different organisations involved to streamline the communication between all the parties and the government.'
Can you combine all that with your private life?
‘Working for the marine corps is a way of life. If I’m not abroad, I live and work during the week on the base in Den Helder, and go back to my house in Leiden at the weekend. My boyfriend works for the Royal Netherlands Army and during the week he lives on his base in Apeldoorn. It’s hard to keep up the kind of social life I used to have in Leiden. There’s not much time left over if you spend a lot of time away, but most of my friends understand and are very flexible, coming to Den Helder now and again. Maybe, in a few years’ time I might want to work for the marine corps in The Hague so that I can be at home in the evening. But for the time being, it’s fine.’
Why did you study Public Administration in Leiden?
‘My parents are government employees and I always found their work interesting. They both studied Law in Leiden. I wanted to know how government worked and that’s what you learn in Public Administration. It’s also useful if you work for the marines. The organisation is on the one hand very operational and on the other very political because that’s where the higher decisions are taken. For me, it’s useful to understand the perspective of The Hague and public administration. It gives you a better idea about why a government organisation can be unwieldy due to its procedures, yet on the other hand, has to be agile due to political decisions.’
What kind of student were you?
‘It was an interesting study, but at the same time I found it a bit dry and very theoretical. That’s why I decided to a master’s in Communication Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit. Partly through my committee work I realised that I didn’t want to just be doing theoretical work, and that I’d prefer to do more hands on, practical things.’
'The kind of association isn’t really important - Catena, Minerva, or a games club. What matters is that you feel a connection with other people
What was student life like for you?
‘I was also a committee member of the Local Chamber of Associations because I thought – and still think – that associations are very important. The kind of association isn’t really important - Catena, Minerva, a games club or a Christian student association. What matters is that you feel a connection with other people and have a network that can take care of you when needed. It also gives you the chance to meet students from other programmes and different backgrounds. I also see that sense of community in the navy. It makes me feel at home.’
Text: Linda van Putten
Leonoor van Poelgeest is a Young Keyholder of the Leiden University Fund. Young Keyholders (younger than 40 years) contribute to innovative research and education projects. In return, they have access to lectures, debates and tours of collections.