The Search for More: Susan Funk’s (F’77) Williams-Mystic Story

Throughout her semester and at moments after it ended, Susan realized how much the accessibility of the Williams-Mystic professors adds to each student’s experience in the program.

“They’re not just there to grade you. They’re there to be your partner in learning,” Susan said.

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

Susan Funk _MAM
Susan Funk (Photo Credit: Mystic Seaport Museum)

You’re looking for more out of your college experience. More challenges. More questions. More big-picture thinking. More solutions. You’ve chosen to change your major from science to American history and you enjoy learning about how people interact with different environments. Your junior year, your advisor tells you about a program he believes pulls together all of your interests.

Welcome to the Williams-Mystic story of Executive Vice President and COO of Mystic Seaport Museum, Susan Funk.

When Susan’s advisor told her about the program, then recruiting students for its very first semester, he assured her that participating would be worth the risk.

“He said any program run by [Williams-Mystic founder and historian] Ben Labaree would be of the highest quality. There was a flier about the program but that’s all we knew about it because it didn’t exist yet. It was a concept rather than something you could go and observe and talk to other people about,” Susan said. She decided to take the risk and apply to the program.

Susan remembers why she chose to come in the program’s very first semester, the fall of 1977, rather than in the spring of 1978: She wanted to sail off Georges Bank in Massachusetts.

“I thought: Well, there’s a good chance that in my life I’ll have other opportunities to sail down in the Caribbean, but I don’t know that going on the fishing grounds is something that I’ll ever get to do again,” Susan said. “We also sailed into Nantucket, coming in on a traditional schooner into that old port. That was really memorable.”

Throughout her semester and at moments after it ended, Susan realized how much the accessibility of the Williams-Mystic professors adds to each student’s experience in the program.

“They’re not just there to grade you. They’re there to be your partner in learning,” Susan said.

The collaborative approach of Williams-Mystic, Susan believes, influences how students approach the world — not only as they return to their home campuses but also as they shape their careers. Right after college, Susan spent time working different jobs to figure out where and how she wanted to build her career.

Susan followed in the footsteps of one of her Williams-Mystic classmates who had gone to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to be an observer for the Law of the Sea Conference discussions and negotiations.

She spent eight weeks living in Geneva, going to strategy sessions with the American team and listening to all of the discussions about the law of the sea. During her time at Williams-Mystic, Ben Labaree had made sure that the F’77 class learned from professionals about topics as diverse as manganese nodules, whaling, shipping lanes and more. Now, in Geneva, these very topics were being discussed and Susan had a chance to apply her knowledge from the program.

After finishing her time in Geneva, she took a job on demonstration squad at Mystic Seaport Museum for the summer.

Susan remembers one of her first days aloft on the Charles W. Morgan as part of the demonstration squad.

“I arrived a day early for training, and the supervisor suggested that I seek out the riggers to see if I could be of help in their work on the Morgan. The riggers said that if I was willing to work aloft, they had some simple tasks I could do.  Of course, I said yes!  It was amazing.  A beautiful, sunny day, the chanteyman was singing down on the wharf, and I was at the end of the yard mouthing sister hooks.  This was the right place for me to spend a summer.  And although I knew I had learned a lot from Williams-Mystic, working as an interpreter taught me so much more,” Susan said.

Susan’s work on the demonstration squad led to several different positions in the Mystic Seaport Museum’s Interpretation Department. Early in her career, she also spent time working in admissions for Williams-Mystic. Susan gained insight into other nonprofit organizations through serving on the Boards of Trustees for the New England Museum Association, the Pine Point School, and the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. Each opportunity, Susan said, has helped her learn more, take on responsibility, and grow as a professional. A highlight of her Mystic Seaport Museum career is the 2014 Charles W. Morgan 38th voyage. Particularly, she remembers being on Stellwagen Bank and seeing numerous humpback whales, including a mother and calf. From handling sail underway to rowing in the whaleboat this experience reflected the importance of interdisciplinary thinking as we explore the past, present, and future.

These experiences reaffirmed for Susan just how unique Mystic Seaport Museum and Williams-Mystic are — particularly in transforming students’ paths long after they leave campus. She stays in contact with her classmates. “We agree that we are incredibly fortunate to be members of the first class and to continue our close friendships and ever-evolving discussions,” Susan said.