Drive Comes From Within: How Experiential Learning Deeply Affected Rob Leary (F’81)

“When you meet someone from another Williams-Mystic class it is like they already understand where you are coming from and the passion you exude.”

This post was written by S’18 alumna  Audra DeLaney. She is studying public relations and political science at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. If you have any questions about our program, you can email her at audra.delaney@gmail.com.

One conversation changes everything about undergrad: It’s a story that links many Williams-Mystic alumni. It’s also the story of Rob Leary (F’81), who first learned about the program from an alumnus.

“He talked about it so passionately and enthusiastically,” Rob said. “He made it sound like the best experience he had ever had and I was so intrigued.”

At the time, Rob was a sophomore studying political science at Union College in upstate New York. He was wondering what to do next in his college experience.

After speaking to the Union College Williams-Mystic alumnus, Rob was interested in the program but was not entirely sold on applying. While Rob was trying to make his decision, Dr. Ben Labaree, founding director of Williams-Mystic, came to Union College and led a compelling discussion about what Williams-Mystic could offer undergraduate students.

After listening intently to Ben Labaree, Rob chose to apply to the program and eventually went to Mystic for an interview. Upon visiting Mystic, he knew the program was the place for him.

“I visited Mystic Seaport Museum as a young child and connecting with it in this new way was exciting for me,” Rob said.

Rob said he had a wonderful time with his classmates.

“I was in a fantastic class. Everyone was so close. We did our sailing on Westward [a now-retired Sea Education Association sailing school vessel] in the North Atlantic and visited Nova Scotia,” Rob said. “Back in Mystic, we stayed close to one another and we sailed small sailboats.”

While in Mystic, Rob and his classmates also visited the U.S. Naval War College, the Coast Guard Academy, and a number of other sites across southern New England. Rob wrote his marine policy paper on the Coast Guard’s role in the war on drugs.

Rob’s classmates came from more than 10 different colleges. He enjoyed being in charge of his studies and making meals with his friends.

“I think we all felt a little bit of healthy competitiveness because we wanted to do well academically as well as have a lot of fun,” Rob said. 

Williams-Mystic deepened Rob’s passion for law and policy. He was interested in admiralty law and planned to build his career in that field. Indeed, Rob attended Fordham Law School after finishing his undergraduate degree. He went on to practice law at White & Case in New York City and Saudi Arabia.

While practicing law, though, Rob realized he also had a passion for finance. He participated in the finance training program of J.P. Morgan & Co., subsequently working for American International Group (AIG). Eventually, Rob became the CEO of three entities in succession: ING Investment Management, TIAA Global Asset Management, and Nuveen. In March 2017, he was named CEO of The Olayan Group; he now leads its global operations from Athens, Greece.

Throughout his career, Rob continued to stay connected with Williams-Mystic. He served on the Williams-Mystic alumni council in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1999, he became the first Williams-Mystic alumnus to join the Mystic Seaport Museum Board of Trustees.

As a Board member for many years, Rob worked to form connections among the program, its alumni, Williams College, and the Mystic Seaport Museum. He recruited other Williams-Mystic alumni to join the Board, including Rob Rohn (F’81) and Steve Campbell (S’87). With the help of Williams College and Mystic Seaport Museum, funding was secured to build the James T. Carlton Marine Science Center (CMSC). Opened in 2007, the CMSC contains 8,000 square feet of lab and classroom space and continues to serve as a study space, a science classroom, and a lab for research conducted by Williams-Mystic students and faculty. 

During our conversation, I could hear in Rob’s voice the admiration he has for Williams-Mystic.

“I had a deep and abiding love for the sea before the program, and I came to understand that the sea impacts art, literature, policy, and everything else. It also had a spiritual impact on me,” Rob said. “I have brought that perspective into my personal and professional life.” 

Rob has met other Williams-Mystic alumni who have become close friends of his, including Williams-Mystic’s moot court appellate judge, Derek Langhauser (F’82). Derek was instrumental in Rob and others becoming members of the Mystic Seaport Museum Board of Trustees.

“When you meet someone from another Williams-Mystic class it is like they already understand where you are coming from and the passion you exude,” Rob said. “I am a big believer in the experiential learning we had at Williams-Mystic: Being out there doing things that were hands-on and experiencing them with people who were involved in the things you were learning about.” 

Rob believes he is most purposeful when he focuses on the environment and education. It’s a purpose he found thanks to Williams-Mystic.

“I felt so passionately about the program. And when you feel that, it is a guide for you to use to follow through on the things you are driven towards and passionate about,” Rob said. “The drive comes from within, comes from your heart, comes from your soul.” 

*Information on Rob’s career came from Rob himself and an article from The Olayan Group.

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