A Road Less Travelled: Dr. Robyn Woodward ’72

Robyn in Sevilla la Nueva, the 16th century capital of Jamaica, excavating a sculptor’s workshop, which she describes as ‘a 16,000 piece “jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box!”

Dr. Robyn Woodward ’72 recently came back to York House to share her amazing and evolving career path in Senior School Assembly. A fourth generation Vancouverite and a second generation Yorkie, Robyn is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Archaeology Department at Simon Fraser University where she frequently teaches a third-year course in Maritime Archaeology and numerous courses in continuing education.

After only a few minutes into her presentation, it was evident that Robyn has taken lifelong learning to new heights. Driven by her passion for archaeology, art and adventure, she has chartered her course to be able to explore these all over the world. At least two months a year, she can be found lecturing on expedition ships from the Canadian Arctic to the Mediterranean, while also directing work at archaeological sites in Jamaica.

“I graduated from Queens University in 1977 with a BA (Hons) in the History of Art with a minor in Classical Studies. The interdisciplinary nature of humanities, the study of philosophy, religion, history, art and culture, have been a huge influence throughout my career. As I loved art and archaeology, I pursued a second undergraduate degree, a BSc (Hons) in Art Conservation and Restoration of Archaeological Materials at the University College in Cardiff, Wales.”

Robin working as a conservation intern in Bodrum, Turkey

Robyn shared that after graduation in 1979, she ran up against the age-old conundrum ‘You can’t get a job unless you have experience and you can’t get experience unless you have a job.’ Her solution was to volunteer. “I took up an internship with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) in Bodrum, Turkey. The experience was invaluable. Internships open doors to a whole network of people and possibilities. In my case, it sent me off along a slightly different career path, the study of maritime archaeology.”

In 1980 Robyn enrolled at Texas A & M University in a new master’s program in Nautical Archaeology, which at the time was the only place in the world that offered such a degree.  There are now a number of such programs (see links below).

“In the summer of 1981, I joined a team of fellow graduate students in Jamaica. This turned into a 12-year project to excavate the submerged pirate city of Port Royal, Jamaica. Several years later, I returned to Jamaica to do my research for my doctoral studies at the same site that I studied for my MA. Sevilla la Nueva is the early 16th century Spanish capital of Jamaica, which was founded by Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego Colon in 1509 and was abandoned in 1534. I excavated the first sugar mill in the New World, sugar being the industry that changed the demographics of the Americas, as it was the driver for the African slave trade. I still direct the work at this site and over the past 10 years have excavated an abbey, settler’s houses, a butchery and a 16th-century sculptor’s work shop.”

An exciting five-year stint followed where Robyn worked in the Grand Caymans in the submarine tourism business. In 1989, she returned to Vancouver to restart her career. “I did so by first volunteering with organizations which had an affinity with my interests in maritime history and archaeology, the Vancouver Maritime Museum (VMM), and the Underwater Archaeological Society of BC (UASBC). “Robyn went on to serve on many boards including MOSAIC, the York House School Foundation, and the Vancouver Richmond Health Board (now part of Vancouver Coastal Health). In 2000, Robyn was awarded the YWCA Women of Distinction Community Volunteer Award.

“Throughout my career, I have embraced the notion that learning is a lifelong activity. I had began a PhD at Simon Fraser University in Archaeology in late 1999 and re-focused my volunteer activities to serve on committees and boards of the professional societies in my own discipline, the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Historical Archaeology, and its Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology. I completed my PhD in 2007.

Robyn leading a tour on a camel

Pursuing volunteering opportunities has always opened doors to a vast array of new possibilities. While serving on the board of Vancouver Maritime Museum 20 years ago, I volunteered to do a one-week cruise up the coast of BC to present a few talks on the history of the province and Canada. When the company Lindblad Expeditions needed a historian/archaeologist to lecture on their first cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean, I raised my hand again. Over the last 16 years, I have become the company’s Mediterranean/maritime expert. I now spend two months a year lecturing on their many small expedition ships. As Lindblad also does all the cruises for National Geographic, it is safe to say that I am constantly challenged with new learning opportunities. In addition to my work with Lindblad Expeditions, I have a speaker’s agent who offers me opportunities to travel as an enrichment speaker on a number of different cruise lines, which enables me to travel the world for free – kind of a dream job!”

In closing, Robyn offered a few tips to charter a dream career:

  • Dare to be bold and take chances by trying something new;
  • Volunteer as a means to try out a career in a new field or profession before committing to a four-year degree in a subject;
  • Learn to write well! Regardless if you study sciences, engineering, accounting or humanities, if you are unable to describe, interpret or clarify what you have designed or discovered clearly and concisely, you will be at a disadvantage; and
  • Pursue the field or profession that you are passionate about!

In 2010, Robyn was awarded the YHS Janet Ruth Mitchell Founders’ Spirit Award, which is presented to an alumna who has demonstrated significant and outstanding spirit and passion in her life’s work. In 2012, she received the Archaeological Institute of America’s McCann Taggart Distinguished Lectureship in Underwater Archaeology.

To learn more about underwater archaeology go to the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology (especially the tab on Education and Careers), and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

For careers in expedition travel visit Lindblad Expeditions.

Category: Alumnae
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