Honors Alumni Spotlight: Robert Riley (BA '18)

Oct. 14, 2019


Tell us a little about your background?

I live in Tucson, Arizona but I’m originally from Los Angeles, California. I completed a successful 20-year career in the United States Navy while participating in eight international deployments. I traveled through 45 countries in support of humanitarian missions, combat operations, and multi-national cross training assignments that provided a well-rounded international perspective. I have been a continuous advocate for marine conservation as a result of my Navy career, serving with institutions such as the Hanauma Bay Education Program and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary while living in Hawaii for nearly eight years. I have also been the proprietor of a small producing fruit farm in Los Santos, Panama for the last ten years, employing seasonal workers for various types of fruit sold in local markets on the Azuero Peninsula. We’ve introduced farm practices that showcase sustainability concepts such as rainwater harvesting and irrigation to serve as drought mitigation examples for innovative farmers in the local area. These global experiences have shaped my understanding of conservation issues and development challenges which emphasize the need for sustainable practices.

What was your journey to UA and what propelled you to be part of the Honors College?

My academic journey began as a non-traditional student at Northland Pioneer College in Show Low, Arizona which created a successful pathway to The University of Arizona. The Honors College extended an opportunity to challenge myself academically while forging new professional relationships dedicated to the conservation of natural resources. I am a recent graduate of the Honors College with a BA in Environmental Studies and a minor concentration in Marine Science. My Honor’s thesis focused on the marine conservation issues central to saving the critically endangered Vaquita porpoise in the Northern Gulf of California, Mexico. The thesis identified community-based conservation practices, ones designed and implemented by the immediate stakeholders, as preferential and most effective versus government sponsored regulations.

I completed an Honors College internship with Biosphere 2, designing and implementing a permanent educational exhibit dedicated to deep ocean exploration. Additionally, I interned with the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA) where my efforts focused on developing resources and strengthening bi-national relationships dedicated towards a habitat restoration project in Nogales, Mexico at the sustainably designed and constructed Los Alisos wastewater treatment plant. Last summer’s Marine Ecology Galapagos Islands study abroad program provided valuable insight to successful conservation strategies implemented in a protected ecotourism area. My recent volunteer efforts in Panama revealed the need for immediate implementation of conservation practices to preserve turtle nesting grounds and biological corridors in the rapidly developing resort area on the Azuero Peninsula. The Galapagos experience affirmed my intentions to apply for the MDP program to serve as a pathway to an improved leadership role dedicated to the development of grassroots organizations committed to the conservation of Panama’s natural resources.

What insights have you gained from your time in the Honors College?

The value of building a professional network and challenging myself to learn about, and participate in, community activities has been critical. My internship with the Community and School Garden program at Mission Garden was instrumental in understanding Tucson history while participating in preservation practices designed around cultural heritage.

What was the most valuable experience you had during your time in the Honors College?

The Biosphere 2 internship offered by the Honors College was exceptionally rewarding for me. My project afforded me the opportunity to create a lasting educational exhibit dedicated to stoking the interest and curiosity of budding young marine biologists. It was also rewarding to spend portions of the day conversing with international visitors about current B2 ocean related research and global marine conservation challenges.

What advice do you want to give to incoming or undergrad Honors students? What advice would you give someone who is thinking of joining the College as a non-traditional student?

I recommend all students take the opportunity to get to know their professors and the Honors College staff. These relationships are vital to a professional network that provides increasing opportunities along a successful journey. I also believe it is necessary to become involved with the local community. This can be achieved through quality internships offered through the College, as well as volunteer opportunities around town with options focused on the environment, culture, and community development. Many of these opportunities are personally rewarding, and they ultimately provide a network supportive of both personal and professional growth.   

What are your plans moving forward?

I’m currently enrolled in the Master’s in Development Practice program at the University of Arizona to receive a concentrated education coupled with experiences, all designed to build my capacity to develop projects and lead community-based conservation efforts. The culmination of this experienced-based education will strengthen my leadership and decision-making abilities, project management skills, and community development as it affects natural resources conservation, both regionally in a desert environment as well as tropical Panama.