Students interested in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island have long been part of an innovative and ground-breaking program that takes a 360-degree approach to understanding issues and solving problems critical to responsible coastal and marine management. Founded in 1970, URI’s Marine Affairs program is the first of its kind in the nation and is recognized as a leader in research and the policy arena. Now, thanks to a partnership with Tall Ships America, URI Marine Affairs students will have new opportunities to gain real-world experience and an introduction to many aspects of the maritime world. At the same time, the partnership will open a pathway for those in the maritime industry to gain greater exposure to and pursue a career in marine affairs.
Founded in 1973 as the American Sail Training Association, Tall Ships America is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to providing hands-on experience and training in seafaring skills and leadership in the nautical sciences whose members offer more than 1.5 million participant days on the water each year. Nationally and internationally recognized as The National Sail Training Organization representing the United States, Tall Ships America supports and promotes safe and effective ship operations, personal development and maritime skill acquisition on behalf of the entire fleet of traditionally rigged sailing vessels in North America.
Over the years many professionals in the maritime industry, including many from tall ships and sail training vessels, have found their way to URI’s graduate program in Marine Affairs. Austin Becker, associate professor and chair of URI’s Marine Affairs department was a captain on tall ship educational vessels before returning to academia and sees the partnership as a natural fit.
“The folks who are working in the tall ships world are really talented people mastering a diverse skillset that can include being an educator, a diesel mechanic, a rigger, an electrician, and of course an expert in sailing and navigation, to name just a few – they are high-performing people with a real passion for what they do,” said Becker. “Marine Affairs offers them a way to transition their skillset and experience into a complimentary career in which they can excel.”
As part of the partnership, URI’s Marine Affairs program will participate in Tall Ships America’s annual conference, educational forums and regional meetings. This includes the upcoming 50th Annual Conference on Sail Training and Tall Ships in Newport, Feb. 7 to 9. The partnership will also increase opportunities for the two organizations to collaborate on research as well as educational programming focused on marine and nautical sciences, maritime workforce development and heritage.
Becker and Kris Von Wald, executive director, Tall Ships America, also hope to develop a specific URI scholarship program to help defray costs for those from the tall ship world who are interested in pursuing a Marine Affairs education – as well as for URI Marine Affairs students who would like to engage in sail training experiences.
“Being onboard a tall ship is a character-building experience – aside from learning sailing and technical skills, you are away from home, living in a confined space, working as part of a team. There is a lot of learning available from the experience,” said Von Wald. “This partnership will highlight one of the ways in which people can continue their education and their career development while also raising awareness of what the experience of being on a tall ship offers schools and potential employers in terms of building skill, perspective and leadership.”
John O’Keeffe, who earned his Master of Marine Affairs (M.M.A.) in 2016, spent nearly 15 years working at sea – mostly on tall ships – before deciding it was time to come ashore.
“I wasn’t fully sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to stay maritime adjacent,” said O’Keeffe. “During that time the Block Island Wind Farm was just getting ready to start construction and I ended up getting a job with Deepwater Wind while still in school.”
O’Keeffe thanked the Marine Affairs faculty for working with him to help finish the program while working full-time. He became the first offshore wind farm manager in the country – a jumpstart to his career that he credits both to his maritime background and his time in the Marine Affairs program.
“Every class that I took in the M.M.A. program, I still use to this day. For me URI was everything. If I hadn’t gone to URI, I wouldn’t have worked for Deepwater Wind – later Ørsted – which helped spawn my whole offshore wind career. The things I learned in the program were pivotal as I moved past managing the Block Island Wind Farm and set up the Marine Affairs departments for Deepwater Wind and then for Ørsted. Having that background and that understanding of policy, outreach and engagement was really helpful in terms of our success.”
Peg Brandon attended URI as an undergraduate focused on natural resources and wildlife biology. Always gifted with a sense of wanderlust, she knew at an early age she was passionate about the ocean and wanted to meet Jacques Cousteau. As part of her undergraduate experience, one of the last things she did was work with an organization called Sea Education Association, with which URI has always had a strong partnership. She was on a tall ship sailing research vessel and kept sailing after she graduated from URI. She returned to URI almost 15 years later.
“At that point I was a faculty member at Sea Education Association. I was sailing as a captain, teaching as nautical science faculty. I had worked in New York Harbor, on the Hudson River and I had also sailed offshore where I wouldn’t see another ship or land for 30 days at a time,” said Brandon. “I came back to URI and to the Marine Affairs program because I wanted to see what was next and take that next step. One of the things that I was really seeking as a kid – though I didn’t know it yet – was an interdisciplinary understanding of the world we live in. For me that focused on the ocean. And that is what the program provided – it was a great launching pad for me.”
She earned her M.M.A. in 1997 and returned to the Sea Education Association, moving up to the position of director of marine operations and later becoming a professor at the Maine Maritime Academy. In 2014, she returned to the Sea Education Association as its president. She was presented with an honorary Doctor of Science by the University in 2019. Brandon believes the partnership between Marine Affairs and Tall Ships America is important.
“There has been somewhat of an informal partnership forever. I was not the first tall ship sailor to go through the Marine Affairs program, and I certainly won’t be the last – but there are new generations out there and it is important to formalize and recognize the role we have in each other’s success,” she said. “The ocean is fabulous but what we’re really talking about is the humans and human interaction with the ocean. The tall ships are an incredibly powerful classroom and when you team that with the Marine Affairs program you have something that can’t be beat. It gives me optimism and hope that we can actually solve some of the difficult problems that face the human society we are living in right now. And it’s going to take people with a broad understanding to do that.”
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