People earn graduate degrees for many reasons, personal and professional.

But Mariellen MacKay’s Master of Science in Human Services from Capella University helped her reach an unexpected result: she ended up running for—and winning—a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2012. She recently spoke about her passion for education and her work.


Q. After graduating from Capella, you were elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Why did you decide to run?

A. I ran to expand my work in advocacy for people. I’m a trained mediator working with individuals who have disabilities and mental health issues. As part of my work with the Moore Center, I had gone to a hearing and spoke about these issues with a representative there. She said, “You really need to run for office. Let’s get together and talk.” I had never thought of it, but talked with a co-worker who agreed and said I’d be perfect. I was worried about how it would affect my job, so I asked my boss if he thought I should run. He said “YES! You’re a natural!” It was such an overwhelming moment.


Q. Tell us about your work as a Representative.

A. I work on committees, including the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee. I had the honor of being the only freshman ever appointed as clerk to the Health and Human Services Oversight Committee; the Chair at the time believed in me and one of my stronger attributes was my desire to help everyone get to yes… I’m a consensus-builder who strives to understand the law and what drives it; and to actively listen to people and what they are expressing as their needs.


Q. What was your background before running for office?

A. I’ve long worked in the field of disabilities. I’ve been a foster parent and adopted a child through that system who is developmentally delayed and on the autism spectrum. I’m passionate about being an advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves and have been an educational advocate across New Hampshire. I’ve also been chair of the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities. I currently chair the New Hampshire State Rehabilitation Council and I am President of the Board of the Granite State Federation of Families with Mental Health Issues.


Q. Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree?

A. I’m very passionate about education—it’s the best gift I’ve ever given myself. I earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice and human services and a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies and behavioral sciences. But I wanted more knowledge, more credentials, more credibility. It was hard, managing full-time work and family and master’s studies. But partway through my work in 2007, Scott Sathers [former Capella enrollment counselor] died in the I-35W bridge collapse, and I just thought, “I’m going to finish my degree for you, Scott.” And I did, summa cum laude, just like my previous degrees.


Q. Did your degree help you advance in your field? How?

A. Absolutely. For one thing, I learned so much about myself, how to expand my horizons, how to be willing to understand others. I was so impressed with the Capella professors and the education I got, particularly the confidence I gained to push myself even harder. They get into your head—“You gave me this, now give me more.” It really taught me critical thinking skills and to welcome academic challenges.


Q. Has your degree been helpful to you in your Representative role?

A. I couldn’t have transferred from position to position within the agency without it, and that gave me the experience and insight I needed to run for office. I needed the master’s to move up, and many functions wouldn’t have been available to me without it. It really taught me how to process and transition information quickly and leave any agendas at the door—a valuable skill when it comes to hearing testimony for legislation.


Q. What’s next for you?

A. Well, my professors have encouraged me to pursue a PhD. I was thinking that at this point, an LCMHC (Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor) would be more valuable for me than a PhD. But am I satisfied yet? A little piece of me is. A bigger piece is waking up and starting to say, hmmm, maybe more.