Adelaide construction alumnus uses his NCP journeys to inspire new cohorts of students
Originally from the Northern Territory, Mitchell Francis spent his childhood living in remote towns including Jabiru in Kakadu National Park, before moving to Adelaide for his secondary education. He then spent a gap year working with an Adelaide company on some of the state’s largest construction projects. “The sense of camaraderie, teamwork and collaboration that’s required to bring those major projects together really fascinated me. I loved being able to say that I’d contributed,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell is an advocate for learning through hands-on experiences, and his time on construction sites motivated him to begin studying a Bachelor of Construction Management and Economics at the University of South Australia.
Applying for an NCP Scholarship
Mitchell received an email from his University that suggested he consider applying for a 2015 New Colombo Plan Scholarship. “Here was a chance to go and explore the Indo-Pacific region, to expand my horizons,” says Mitchell. “As result of where I grew up, I knew relatively little about our neighbouring region. The NCP was a way to make me a better, more informed global citizen.”
As he prepared his NCP application, the diversity of Malaysia and its people stood out to Mitchell. “I felt that in order to really understand the region, I needed to live and breathe it,” Mitchell explains. “You can’t really experience it through a book or from listening to other people. I saw Malaysia as being a gateway to the wider region, with an opportunity to not only learn about Malaysian culture, but of the varied Chinese and Indian influences there too.”
NCP Malaysia: studying and interning at Lendlease
Malaysia surpassed Mitchell’s expectations, as he completed a semester of study at Universiti Malaya and a six-month internship with Lendlease across 2015-16. “It was amazing,” recalls Mitchell. “Malaysia is an absolute melting pot of cultures and religions. By living, studying, and working with people from so many varied backgrounds, my understanding of the region really started to grow.”
At Lendlease in Kuala Lumpur, Mitchell gained more hands-on experience as he managed the delivery of a prototype apartment design for a multi-billion dollar lifestyle and residential project in the city. “I was responsible for project managing and procuring local contractors and suppliers to build a model apartment. This apartment layout was to be constructed hundreds of times on the project, so it was essential to get the design right. Once completed, the prototype was used to consult with a range of stakeholders, including people with disabilities and people from different ethnic groups, so that their needs and perspectives could be incorporated into the final design. Our team ended up winning a Global Innovation Award for our work on the prototype apartment.”
NCP China: studying and new opportunity
Mitchell went on to study a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Adelaide and completed a semester exchange at Shanghai Jiao Tong University through an NCP mobility grant in 2018. “I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin before I left, but it was an amazing experience. I met so many entrepreneurial and future-minded people while I was there; many I consider to be friends for life. Every day felt like an adventure.”
Mitchell stayed on in Shanghai for another 6 months after his exchange to learn Mandarin. Towards the end of his time there, he was given an opportunity to put his newly learned language skills to the test when he was asked to host the St Kilda Football Club players while they were in Shanghai for their first showcase AFL match in China.
Mitchell’s connection with Malaysia and the region has continued following his NCP scholarship and mobility programs. “When I returned to Australia, I was high on the excitement and energy of my time in Malaysia. However, one of the most important things was ensuring that the experiences and connections I made on my NCP program didn’t just become a memory.” He shared some of his Malaysian journey with other construction students, encouraging them to pursue an NCP opportunity. “It’s not possible for every student to go to Malaysia for a year like I was able to do, but with mobility programs, it is possible for students to visit for a short period and get a taste.”
Mitchell designed a student mobility study tour, gaining support and partnering with Universiti Malaya and Lendlease. “NCP was a phenomenal experience for me, and I wanted to be able to share some of that experience with other construction students,” says Mitchell. “I also realised that there was no international component to the degree and felt students should have an opportunity to develop their cultural intelligence and get to see this industry as being more than just the construction element. It’s also about building relationships with the local people where the projects will sit.” He pitched the study tour to the University of South Australia, who jumped onboard and were able to offer the program to their students using an NCP mobility project multi-term grant. “The study tour started travelling to Malaysia in 2018 and we have taken a group of around 15 students each year and join up with a similar number of students from Universiti Malaya. Together we attend lectures and visit companies, construction sites and the Australian High Commission in Malaysia.”
Adapting amid the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic saw the NCP mobility project pivot to a virtual format in 2021, which Mitchell says has been just as beneficial for the students involved. “We had students across both universities working on group projects and presentations over two weeks. The new format also allowed students who may not normally be able to undertake the study tour in-country to participate.”
Mitchell says that industry partners were incredibly supportive of the virtual NCP study tour. “We were really grateful that companies like Lendlease, RobertsCo, Partek and Mulia really got behind the idea and helped us to showcase, not just Malaysia, but Australia as well.” Lendlease and Partek provided virtual tours and in-person study tours which were live streamed to the students who were facing lockdown back in Malaysia. The students were able to compare different construction methodology, cultural issues and the challenges faced during construction in both countries.”
The study tour has expanded its reach and is now offered to civil and structural engineering students, with a view to include other faculties in future iterations of the mobility project. “We have built a really strong relationship with Universiti Malaya and are hopeful that it may lead to a future exchange partnership between the two universities,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell is thankful for his experiences and exposure to the region through his NCP programs. “Each country is so distinctive and I’m so fortunate to have travelled to many different places and to have made genuine friendships with people from across the region. I’ve shared many meals and spoken at length with people about their lives. I shared information about Australia and we discovered common goals.”
Mitchell’s NCP experiences have been life changing and opened many new doors for him. “NCP set me on a different trajectory for the future; a trajectory that I had never considered being capable of. I’d never really seen or known the opportunities that are there in the region, and what you can’t see, you can’t be.”
Mitchell is now working as a construction lawyer with Corrs Chambers Westgarth in Melbourne.