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Onward and Upward for Jonathan Mueller '94 & Eric Mueller '96

For Mueller brothers Jonathan ’94 and Eric ’96, HKIS journeys inspire outdoor education and space adventure...

Jonathan has never forgotten the three years he spent at HKIS Elementary School from 1983-86. “The diversity of the student body and the exposure to different cultures at HKIS was unbelievable. I would never have gotten this experience had I not attended HKIS,” he says.

His daily interactions with fellow students from all parts of the world motivated the young Jonathan to look through maps in his classroom to figure out where all his classmates were from.

"Students would give reports to the class on their country,” he says. “I will always remember

a report on Chad in Grade 2 from one of my classmates. Prior to his presentation, I had no idea that Africa even existed, let alone that there was a country in it with the same name as one of my friends.”

It is also the people that Eric remembers most. One clear memory is of the Interim trips he went on during his HKIS high school years (1994-96). “These were real bonding experiences with teachers and friends,” he recalls.

Eric fondly remembers joining an aviation themed Interim in his Junior year at HKIS. “That was my first time in a helicopter; it was so much fun. That Interim I learned what it means to actually work in the aviation field, rather than what it’s like to study the field. It gave me the motivation to do the latter.”

And powerful motivation it proved, because Eric went on to study a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at Princeton University. He credits that Interim with sustaining his interest in aerospace engineering during the less than glamorous problem sets he encountered in high school and University.

After graduation, he moved to the San Francisco Bay area and took a job with NASA at the Ames Research Center. “Getting into NASA involved a lot of luck. Having worked for NASA since 2000, I still don’t fully understand how they hire new people,” he laughs.

According to him, he got lucky, because his boss came to Princeton and wanted to meet with students. “He interviewed me and other students for the one opening his NASA team had, and I was successful.”

Eric, right, and Jonathan - during a trip to Macau in the 1980's

Jonathan followed a less conventional, but equally impressive track from study to career. He attended the University of Virginia, graduating in 1998 with a degree in Asian Studies and Economics. On graduating he worked as a management consultant in Chicago and then in sales and corporate strategy for a technology company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, after five years, he realized that his heart was not in the corporate world; rather it was in education and the outdoors, a realization that was cemented during a six-month sabbatical he took in-between jobs to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,160-mile trail that runs from Georgia to Maine.

Soon after this sabbatical in 2003, Jonathan took the plunge, followed his heart, and said goodbye to the relative financial security of the corporate world. He then moved to Tanzania, where he spent nine months volunteering in business development and microfinance.

He describes his time in Tanzania as “a profound experience... It opened my eyes to the non-profit world and to a continent that I knew only a little more about than when I was discovering it in Grade 2 class presentations at HKIS.”

Upon his return to the US in 2004, Jonathan fully transitioned his career to outdoor and environmental education, working in New Hampshire before moving back to California – first in the San Bernardino Mountains, and then in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area in 2006, where he has been ever since.

Though happy to be at last working in education and outdoor pursuits, it was not long before Jonathan was exploring new possibilities beyond just getting students outdoors.

"I realized teenagers are naturally inclined to take risks, and face many potential negative risks, like drug taking and gang involvement. My ambition was to help young people re-channel their energy to positive risk taking.”

In pursuit of this, he established the nonprofit Sierra Nevada Journeys (SNJ), in Reno, NV in 2006. SNJ set about building programs to give students powerful experiences and outcomes through experiential and place-based education.

Mueller family Christmas holiday in Hong Kong 2007

Since 2006, SNJ has grown to a staff of 20 and last year served more than 3,000 young people in a variety of programs: residential outdoor schools, in-school programming, and teacher professional development. SNJ is now an Approved Educational Vendor in the Washoe County School District and serves dozens of schools.

With SNJ’s growth, Jonathan’s role has evolved from that of day-to-day education of students to fundraising, strategic planning, and organizational management. This has meant more deskwork, but he says this is a natural transition. “I am able to combine the best of what I like about the corporate world, like strategic planning and problem solving, and marry these with a mission driven organization.”  

His one caveat, he says, is that he gets out at the weekends to do some rock climbing or something active. “Being an Instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) helps, as it means I am able to ‘escape’ for a few weeks each summer to lead student courses in Wyoming.”

Back at NASA, Eric Mueller is engaged in pursuits right out of a science fiction novel: building, testing and flying a three-meter hybrid rocket, and constructing an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for an Air Traffic Control system, for example.

"Most recently I have been running simulations with astronauts and test pilots to determine the best ways to fly the new generation of spacecraft that NASA is building.”

Eric’s working day varies significantly depending on the project and its phase. “If I am conducting a simulation on Spacecraft Handling Qualities, then I start the day briefing astronauts or test pilots on the experiment we’re running and how to interact with the vehicle model we have developed.”

"We fly what’s called the Vertical Motion Simulator to train astronauts in the task at hand, and then walk them through our experiment matrix to collect data.”

Eric and his team then debrief the astronauts to get feedback on the vehicle (usually the Orion spacecraft, which is replacing the Space Shuttle) to improve the next round of simulations.

Even as a child, Eric loved building things, whether by hand, with tools or on the computer.

He says he derives a similar mental stimulation and pleasure determining the best ways to fly the new generation of spacecraft as he did all those years ago building model aeroplanes and rockets as a child.

When not conducting simulations, he could be designing the ‘models’ NASA uses to simulate a vehicle, coordinating engineers who implement those specifications, testing the model by flying it himself, analyzing the data from previous experiments, or writing papers and presentations for technical conferences.

He says one of the best things about working for NASA is the professional development and training. “I have always felt that the people you interact with make the most contribution to your growth and development, so staying connected with amazing people at institutions like NASA, Stanford and Princeton is a great way to stay challenged and interested.”

In their own words...

Jonathan on the work of SNJ:

"Our activities and programs are designed to empower youth through positive risk-taking. We get a person to climb to the top of a totem pole, balance atop of it, and jump off, attached to a safety rope of course…"

“…When this is something new to them, they need to think it through. The sum of this process is often an intense, emotional learning journey. But it is safe, positive risk taking, and helps them realize that they can confront a fear and overcome it…"

“…This experience can have the power to positively impact an individual’s life, so when they sit down to do a math problem, it is something they know they can work through and overcome.”

Eric on what motivates him:

"I love examining a problem, determining the fundamental source of that problem and formulating a solution. Many problems in engineering require an understanding of the politics,finances and interpersonal relationships that accompany a problem. 

A Clear View

Jonathan (right) and Eric at Shek O in 2005.

Jonathan and Eric are fine examples of successful HKIS alums, albeit in very different fields. Jonathan holds some significant longterm ambitions that involve SNJ transforming the entire educational system.

A longer-term strategy is to transform the relationship SNJ has with schools to impact how schools teach. “I hope to influence schools so they teach in a manner to appeal to a range of students’ intelligences, inquiry based learning, hands on based learning,” says Jonathan. “This is why I started SNJ.”

For Eric it is hard to think beyond finishing his NASA sponsored PhD at Stanford, or even beyond the May/June simulation. “I guess I’d like to do something that helps further an important endeavor, like returning astronauts to the Moon, or that helps a great number of people live a bit better, even if that is spending just a little less time waiting on delayed flights.”

He says while those would be nice achievements in the next decade or so, he thinks longer term life/career goals will go beyond that, even though he has not fully decided what they should be.

“I like to continually push out my goals as I approach them, otherwise I get complacent and don’t accomplish as much as I could!”

To learn more about Sierra Nevada Journeys, visit their website at: http://www.sierranevadajourneys.org/


Hong Kong Revisited

After their parents – Richard and Claire Mueller – moved back to the US from Hong Kong in 1998, brothers Jonathan and Eric did not return to Hong Kong for a number of years.

Back home in the US, Richard Mueller made a career change himself: from that of a career diplomat to Head of School of Northfield Mount Hermon, a well-known college preparatory boarding school in Northfield, Massachusetts.

This career move would lead to an interesting turn of events seven years later in 2005 when Richard was chosen to lead HKIS as its new Head of School.

Eric says he was “surprised and excited” when he heard his Dad was going to be Head of School at HKIS. “I knew it was a great opportunity for Mom and Dad, both of whom had really enjoyed their lives in Hong Kong,” he says.

"We had not been back to Hong Kong for a number of years and had a fantastic time there. So from a selfish point of view, Dad’s appointment meant that we could return to Hong Kong regularly for family Christmases,” says Eric.

Between 1998 and 2004, the traditional Mueller family Christmas gatherings were spent in the midst of the Massachusetts winter. “These were special family occasions, but always cold and often snowedin. The thought of Christmas in warm, familiar Hong Kong was enticing,” says Jonathan.

Richard commenced his duties as Head of School in August 2005. Jonathan and Eric made their first trip back to Hong Kong in December that year. In their seven years’ absence from the city, many of their friends had moved on and Hong Kong had changed.

We were especially devastated to learn that Kublai’s in Wan Chai was no longer around. When we were at school, we used to love to eat there,” says Jonathan.

Notwithstanding this, he and Eric have still managed to eat out at many different Chinese restaurants over the last four Christmases. “Shanghai 369 is still a favorite. I get to practice my Mandarin when I order,” says Eric.

Besides trying to cram in as many authentic Chinese dining experiences as possible, when in town Eric enjoys revisiting old haunts he remembers as a teenager. During the last four Christmas breaks in Hong Kong, you might have seen Jonathan Mueller trail running through Tai Tam Country Park, swimming at Repulse Bay, or rock or bolder climbing at Shek O. “Last year I went swimming at Repulse Bay on Christmas Day,” he says.

Two years ago, Jonathan invited Mom and Dad to Shek O to watch him and his brother climb. “Mom had to turn away to face the ocean, she couldn’t watch,” laughs Jonathan. “She would rather I sat at home and read books, but understands what it means to me.”

Another time, Eric and Jonathan managed to get Dad Richard into a harness at Shek O. “We got him up a few notches, which was a lot of fun to watch,” he says.

Jonathan and Eric expect to be back in Hong Kong again this Christmas, which will be their last here before their parents retire in the summer 2010.

"We always enjoy returning, so I am sure there will be many more return trips in the future. Hong Kong and HKIS have a very special place in our family’s heart.”

Eric and Jonathan on the teachers we remember...

Eric remembers that Mr. Klammer and Mrs. Harvey were instrumental in training and encouraging him in physics and math.  

Eric (right), Jonathan (left) with Dad Richard Mueller in
Thailand in 1984.  Note the boys are wearing PFO World's Fair t-shirts!

"I was so fascinated by the three classes I took from Mr. Klammer that I’m pursuing a PhD in the same material and find my most enjoyable days (at work) to be those when I’m actually working with the same types of equations and problems that he first introduced me to, albeit in a slightly more advanced fashion.

Mrs. Harvey gave me the mathematical background upon which I built my understanding of the concepts I’m still using today.”

Today, Eric finds he is called upon to write and present, even more than solve equations or write computer programs at NASA. He says without the training that Mr. Ewing (AP English, senior year) and Mr. McCarthy (AP American History, junior year) gave in organizing my thoughts and writing them down in a coherent manner, he would never be able to communicate his technical findings.

"More than my technical expertise, my ability to write and communicate in front of a group has had an absolutely fundamental impact on my success as an engineer,” he says.

He also recalls the strong support of Eric McDonald, his cross country coach and home-room teacher, as well as that of Jim Handrich, his Elementary principal in the 1980s and later as his High School principal in the 1990s.

Jonathan on his memories of teachers...

Jonathan fondly remembers teachers Mrs. Marie Byrnes in Grade 2, Mrs. Tina Adams in Grade 3, and Mrs. Mary Hoff in Grade 4. "Each of them challenged me and helped shape me in some of my most formative years.”

He also remembers his math and Wrestling Coach, Mr. Jim Reuter in Grade 4, who turned him onto a sport that he enjoyed immensely. “I still have the certificate from my first tournament wins!”


Sources:  DragonTales Volume 11 Summer Edition 2009