Story by Dwain Hebda
For many people who grew up in Cleveland, Mississippi, the world can feel like a very small place. If James Mitchell (’09) was ever one of them, that all changed during his undergraduate years at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“I got a history degree, but more importantly, I did a study abroad program that was my real first exposure to something global and exciting and adventurous outside the state of Mississippi,” he said. “It really lit a fire in me for all things global. I spent the next probably four or five years doing everything I could to travel, then I started doing community service and public service programs as well. I was very much interested in seeing the world and doing good along the way.”
In 2005, Mitchell did two stints in AmeriCorps and during one of them he met Chandle Devor (’07), a graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service, who told the young go-getter about the Little Rock program.
“Chandle was with me in AmeriCorps in Washington, D.C., and she had been admitted to the program. I had never heard of it until she was describing it,” he said. “I had a very clear desire to work in international things but no real pathway to get there. What she was telling me about the Clinton School just kind of stuck with me as this thing to look into. It was the first time that I really turned the corner on establishing a global career.”
One of Mitchell’s most impactful experiences during his years in Little Rock unfolded under the most unlikely of circumstances, involving a film crew and a McDonald’s franchise.
“At the time that I was there, (then Dean) Skip Rutherford was working with these guys who were documentary filmmakers, and they were thinking about doing something on the school,” he said. “One of the things they were interested in was going to the Delta. I was the only person in that class that was actually from the Delta, so Skip contrived for me and him to take these filmmakers to my hometown.”
During that visit, while Mitchell was playing tour guide to the filmmakers, Rutherford dropped in on the local donut shop.
“He comes out with a paper and shows me that the ambassador to Tanzania was in my hometown speaking at this little college,” Mitchell said. “Skip, being who he was with his connections, was able to reach out to this guy and it turns he had a bunch of McDonald’s franchises that he owns in the South and was traveling around looking in on his business interests. He agreed to meet some of us at, I swear to God, the McDonald’s in White Hall, Arkansas.”
Mitchell, who had already placed Tanzania as a goal for his second year in the program, came away from the meeting with an invitation from the outgoing ambassador to visit the country.
“That was my International Public Service Project,” he said. “I did that at the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania where I worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development.”
While there, Mitchell also did his Capstone project, an opportunity that also came about in the most serendipitous manner.
“My Capstone was supposed to be working for Our House in Little Rock, officially, but that was before I left for Tanzania,” he said. “After I left, I didn’t know who I would be doing my Capstone with; I just had to go and be there and make that happen.
“I met somebody through the embassy who had been working for a children’s home in northern Tanzania and I reached out to what I believed to be the children’s home they were talking about. Turns out, I got in touch with the wrong children’s home but they had a program where there were basically year-long internships. But unfortunately, they didn’t have an opening for what I was interested in.
“A week later this guy writes me back and he’s like, ‘Hey, you’re not going to believe this, but the guy doing the communications position has to go back to Europe. Do you want to come up here and interview?’ I went in and he hired me to do my internship there. After my time at the embassy, I moved straight to Moshi in northern Tanzania where I did my Capstone project with Amani Children’s Home. I ended up living in Tanzania for about a year.”
Mitchell’s professional development didn’t end with his graduation from the Clinton School in 2009. In fact, for all his experiences, he said he had difficulty establishing a firm professional path. In trying several things, including working for and teaching at the school itself, he learned how to meld philosophy with action.
“I think one of the things that many of the Clinton School students suffer from is there is usually a cohort of people, much like myself, that have really good intentions but not a lot of direction,” he said. “Most Clinton School students can identify their cause, something that they care about and they want to improve. But no one gets hired to do a cause, they get hired to do a function, a job within an organization that works on a cause.
“The trick at the Clinton School is that you have to be able to identify your cause, because that’s kind of an underlying assumption of why you’re there, but you also have to be able to visually identify a function where you will be doing a specific role in an organization.”
Mitchell ultimately joined the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in 2021. With more than a decade of working in global programs under his belt, he was recently promoted from associate director to the school’s director of global programs. In that role, he works to broaden the horizons, minds, and skillsets of students seeking wider purpose, as his Clinton School experience did for him.
“The Clinton School is something where you’re exposed to a lot of different opportunities and career advancement scenarios and you’re given the challenge and opportunity to figure it out and make it happen,” he said. “I left with an absolute ton of doors opening and the kind of professional development preparation to go and seize the day.”
James Mitchell, a 2009 graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service, is currently the Director of Global Programs at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Mitchell’s professional experience also includes time at the Clinton School and Winrock International.