From Auburn to space: Auburn alumnus serves as policy advisor for New Zealand Space Agency

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Jonathan Mitchell ’13 sips his coffee, pouring over newsletters and headlines as he prepares for his day with the New Zealand Space Agency.

Recently, the New Zealand government joined its first official space mission—MethaneSAT—in partnership with the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund. New Zealand’s government is contributing $26 million to the state-of-the-art satellite designed to detect global methane emissions with unprecedented accuracy.

“As part of the space policy team our focus is largely on creating the right environment and policy settings that will enable the growth of the New Zealand space industry,” Mitchell said.

With a job in the unique industry of space, Mitchell’s day may vary. He is a policy advisor on the Space Policy Team of the New Zealand Space Agency. While involved in research, Mitchell also gives advice to the minister of economic development and workshops policies.

“Briefing ministers on space issues has been really interesting,” Mitchell said. “As you can imagine they are very busy people so advice needs to be as clear and to the point as possible, but without leaving anything out, it can be a tricky balance to get right. Recently, I got to write a briefing for the Prime Minister—it was fairly standard advice about a space related event she was attending and I don’t know if she was even able to read it; but it’s cool to have something you worked on used to inform decision makers at that level.”

Another one of Mitchell’s tasks is dealing with the public and their inquiries into the New Zealand Space Agency.

“I’ve always enjoyed problem solving and have been eager to work on issues and areas that have an international dimension,” Mitchell said. “The nature of New Zealand as a small advanced island nation means that almost every area of government has an international aspect to it and you get the opportunity to work on some really cool issues [like space] at a really early stage in your career.”

Procuring a job with the New Zealand Space Agency, a part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, made sense for Mitchell because he grew up in New Zealand. As a dual citizen, Mitchell had dreamed of living in the United States for years, having visited often as a child.

When it came time to apply to colleges, Mitchell considered the move, despite being unfamiliar with the universities.

“After finishing high-school in New Zealand, I looked at colleges in the Southeast where we had the most family connections,” Mitchell said. “On the advice of some family friends I applied to Auburn and was accepted. The first time I visited campus was for Camp War Eagle.”

Having moved across the world at seventeen-years-old, Mitchell had to adapt to culture differences as well as being so far from his family. Fortunately for Mitchell, he made fast friends who ‘adopted’ him into their own families.

“Getting involved and making an effort to get to know people helped a lot,” Mitchell said. “I joined a campus ministry, RUF or Reformed University Fellowship, and spent a lot of time with friends in their hometowns on breaks and long weekends. It was also a great excuse to travel—I got to see a lot of the states and even did a study abroad in Europe for a summer.”

Something Mitchell quickly grew accustomed to was football. New Zealand has nothing that compares with the excitement of SEC football Saturdays, Mitchell said.

Because of this, one of his favorite Auburn memories is the 2010 championship season.

While at Auburn, Mitchell chose to study international business. He said that one of the reasons he chose this was because learning another language interested him but international business would give Mitchell a lot of skills.

“Being able to take such varied subjects in history, Spanish, finance, economics and statistics was a lot more fun and turned out to develop a really useful toolbox of skills when it comes to working in public policy,” Mitchell said.

For Mitchell this meant public speaking, critical thinking, decisiveness and how government communication works when related to private entities or individuals.

After graduation, Mitchell studied international relations as well as living in three major cities in different countries. After living in Auburn, Mitchell spent some time in Dallas, Texas, moved to Melbourne, Australia, to receive his master’s and now lives in Wellington, New Zealand. While Mitchell said he has nothing against returning to the United States, New Zealand gives him the opportunity to work in the space industry.

“The New Zealand government is relatively small, especially when compared to the U.S.,” Mitchell said. “This means that you get some pretty significant responsibility early in your career and have to learn fast. It’s one of the biggest challenges but also one of the most rewarding aspects because what you do has the potential to really make a difference.”

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