Government work is Torstenson's calling
There aren't many areas of the government in which Cassandra Torstenson hasn't worked over the last 18 years. "I've worked every level of government--federal, state, county, city and also college," the Brainerd city administrator said. "I like it...
There aren't many areas of the government in which Cassandra Torstenson hasn't worked over the last 18 years.
"I've worked every level of government-federal, state, county, city and also college," the Brainerd city administrator said. "I like it because I get to do what's right for the people."
Torstenson started her tenure in Brainerd in January after moving to the lakes area from Bismarck, N.D. She spent the last five years there working as a senior policy adviser for the governor and as an environmental section manager for the North Dakota Department of Transportation.
As a senior policy adviser, Torstenson carried about 19 different state agencies on her back, working with officials on environmental, agricultural, transportation and economic issues, among others.
At the department of transportation, she oversaw five state program areas and all of the agency's staff.
"I loved it," she said.
Torstenson's desire to work in the government started early in life.
"Ever since I was a child, I've really enjoyed working to make a positive difference in people's lives," she said. "I never knew exactly what I was going to do, but I knew that I wanted to make a positive difference in the community."
Achieving that goal started with pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental science at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., a ways away from her Illinois hometown.
"I wanted to live and work and go to school where I could play," Torstenson said of her decision to move to the Pacific Northwest. "I got to live right at the base of the Cascade Mountains and on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which goes up to Alaska and down to Seattle. I could walk to the water, and I could bike to the mountains. It was incredible."
Western Washington University was also ranked as one of the top environmental schools in the country at the time.
After learning and enjoying herself in Washington, Torstenson moved back to the Midwest to get her master's degree in public administration from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
"It was really helpful having the combination of the two (degrees)," she said.
The interest in environmental issues stemmed from Torstenson's childhood spent on her parents' 3,000-acre farm in northeastern Illinois. Tending to the corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, alfalfa and cattle proved to be beneficial for later in life.
"Growing up on the farm was probably one of my greatest life experiences because it really taught you a good work ethic, and it taught me how to work with people of all types," she said. "I got to be exposed to so many neat things."
Those neat things included economic development as well as farming, as her parents doubled as developers.
"I learned about commercial development because they developed an industrial park," she said. "So I was able to learn about all of that. Real world experience-but also learn about being an entrepreneur and a business owner."
She would later become an entrepreneur herself.
"I was an organic farmer for about five years and ran a certified organic market garden," she said.
Torstenson appeared at farmers markets, had a roadside farm stand and contracted with another area grower to supply certain vegetables.
"It was really neat to be able to dabble in being an entrepreneur on my parents' farm," she said.
This farming venture came post-college when Torstenson was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service writing farm plans. She then decided to take time off from her government work to focus on entrepreneurship, but two years later she ended up back in government, this time at the county level.
"I've been in leadership positions for about the last 14 years," she said of her time in government, noting most of those positions dealt with the environment.
"I worked a lot of my career in the environmental field but in a leadership position, executive management position, so writing policies, revising state laws, helping to set the stage for the future of a community," she said. "So not really in the nitty gritty of working in the environment but rather overseeing how processes impact places and people and things."
While there may at times still be an environmental element of sorts in her new job, Torstenson is now enjoying the diversity of being a city administrator.
"There's so many different facets of running a city. But for me that's actually good because I really like diversity," she said. "There's no two moments that are the same, and that's awesome."
Those different facets include overseeing all the city departments, budgeting, problem-solving and of course working closely with city staff and council members.
"Basically all the operations that are needed to run an organization," she said.
One of Torstenson's favorite parts so far is economic development.
"I see so much potential in our city for positive change and then to help to bring new living-wage jobs to the community," she said, adding she's excited learn about the people and businesses already here while also helping potential newcomers see how they might fit in.
Torstenson herself is learning to fit in with the community as well, but it's proving to be easy, as she-like so many others-has vacationed in the lakes area for a long time.
"I was able to visit here a lot in the last 18 years and just loved it. I thought, you know if I could ever have an opportunity to live here, I would definitely take it," she said.
Then her wish came true.
"This position came open, and it was in an area I actually want to live and stay, not just go for a little while but rather to settle and raise my family," she said.
And her husband, Eric, was completely on board.
"'Hey, would you be interested in moving here?'" Torstenson asked her husband, "and he's like, 'I love the lakes and the trees, of course.'"
So the family of six-including four young boys-moved to the area on New Year's Eve last year and has been enjoying it ever since.
"It's totally different than North Dakota. We lived in Bismarck where there's not a lot of trees," she said. "It's just been a really fun transition for the kids from a treeless environment to a tree-filled environment."
And the transition to Brainerd city administrator has been a positive one, too.
"I feel so good going to work and knowing that I get to make a positive difference for the community and for the job I'm able to do," she said. "It's one of those jobs where you feel good going to work every day."