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The full circle of a mission-driven life

Caren Standfast

Leadership development


October 22, 2020

In a recent meeting with my math department colleagues, we were asked to reflect on our backgrounds for an eight-part series lead by Culver’s Cultural Competence and Equity Committee. Understanding first how our experiences have made us who we are today, our goal was to listen to each other’s stories to gain perspective on how, as adults, our unique backgrounds might collectively contribute to the whole-person education of our students.

While I mentioned familiar sights, sounds and smells from my childhood, later that day, I began to think deeper about my background and an investor, businessman and philanthropist named Jack Bogle.

In the fall of 1993, I was starting my senior year at a local public high school in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Even though I had attended school in the same district since kindergarten, my high school had over 800 students per graduating class, which often made me just another number among my peers.

Accordingly, when my high school guidance counselor met with me about applying to colleges, our conversation was brief and to the point. It went something like this: You want to be an engineer. Here’s a list of engineering colleges. You won’t get into this one (the United States Naval Academy). Try for these three “a little lower” (pointing to schools a little lower on a list of colleges).

I don’t remember anything else from my conversation that day with my guidance counselor. In fact, at the time, I didn’t remember him saying not to apply or that I couldn’t apply to the Naval Academy…so, I applied. 

I remember sending in my application, taking my physical fitness test, receiving a nomination from my congressman – very similar to today’s application process to service academies. Then, I remember —similar to today’s seniors after meeting the November college deadlines—waiting. Waiting. And waiting.

In April of my senior year (for anyone going through this process, if it’s April, you know how long I had been waiting), I remember being called out of a class and sent to my guidance counselor’s office. I had received a phone call. The voice on the other end of the call was Captain Flight from the United States Naval Academy Foundation. He was calling to offer me — unfortunately, not a direct appointment to the Naval Academy — rather, a scholarship to attend a boarding school for a year as a postgraduate.


Then: The Standfasts at the 2016 CGA lacrosse senior day: (front, left) Jack, Tommy, Geoff and Brady. (Back, left) Caren, Geoff and Annie.


Through the Foundation program, students who do not receive direct appointments to the Naval Academy can be selected to attend an approved boarding school, and at the end of a successful postgraduate year and re-application process, can receive a direct appointment to the Naval Academy. With the help of the Naval Academy Foundation and a scholarship provided by a man named Jack Bogle, I would attend Blair Academy, a boarding school, for a postgraduate year.

Being the youngest of five children and from a modest economic background, I was grateful for the scholarship and the opportunity, but I was only 17 years old at the time, so I did not understand who Jack Bogle was or why he invested in students’ education by funding a scholarship program. I also had no idea how his gift of education would change my entire life’s trajectory. 

I successfully finished my year at boarding school and entered the Naval Academy in the summer of 1995. From that point, I went on to serve in the United States Marine Corps as an adjutant during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. I learned that humans seek structure in times of chaos, and, as a leader, it is my responsibility to provide structure. The military teaches this through daily routines.

In fact, my first day of plebe summer at the Naval Academy was spent, among other things, learning how to fold and stow away my belongings. Everything had a place and a priority—and everyone’s wardrobe in the brigade had to be identical, and they were inspected every morning to ensure it. Socks had to “smile,” clothes went left to right in colored ordered from dark to light. This philosophy of structure carried over to the Marine Corps, ensuring every Marine’s pack was put together identically so we knew where to find supplies. On September 11, 2001, as a young second lieutenant, I realized the importance of having structure in times of chaos.

In 2003, I met my husband while stationed together at MAG-49. We were married, moved to various duty stations and grew our family to seven—a daughter and four sons. After being honorably discharged from the Marines, and focused on family, I remembered my time at boarding school, and I started on a new career path in 2007 as a teacher. In 2013, I had the opportunity to unite my military experiences, my career in education and my boarding school experiences when I joined Culver’s teaching faculty as a mathematics instructor.


Now: Geoff and Annie in back. Jack, Tommy, Geoff, Brady and Caren. After a family run. (Top photo) At Annie's graduation from the Naval Academy.


From the moment I stepped onto Culver’s campus, I was reminded of my experiences in the military. Ironically, it was not the stereotypical indoctrination process of uniforms, drill and shining shoes that reminded me of the military (although I do love that part).

Those military symbols aren’t the mission of the military, just as they aren’t the mission of Culver. Rather they are a means to an end in leadership training. The first time I had to be responsible for others’ well-being and safety was in the Marines. But it took years of followership, education and practice at the Naval Academy to understand how to lead.

While, I do have “sea stories” of making my socks smile, calling cadences, and memorizing customs and traditions of the Navy, the bedrock of my strongest memories from my military experiences comes from uniting with others in the community to live its mission. When you walk around Culver’s campus, the school lives leadership through experiential education centered on a mission of character cultivation, whole-person education and responsible citizenship. 

Culver’s orientation process, daily schedule and programming create structure for students. Students learn how to live the Culver mission through leadership education in all areas on campus — academics, athletics, arts, extracurricular activities, residential life and spiritual life. Both the boys and girls’ schools use low-risk templates as tools to teach students how to prioritize, balance schedules, and complete tasks faster and with more precision. Through leadership training, students learn the importance of empathy, philanthropy, and ensuring the health and welfare of each other and themselves. 

I enjoy waking to the sounds of Culver’s cannons and attending various ceremonies on campus to honor students’ work. When you meet a CGA or CMA student or alum, ask them how these activities were a means to an end for educating their whole person in mind, spirit and body. I learned from my experiences at a boarding school, the Naval Academy, and in the military to support Culver’s whole-person education. And I learned from Jack Bogle about the gift of philanthropy.

In 2016, having then been at Culver for three years, I remember teaching an Honors Elements of Calculus class during Parent’s Weekend. As I spoke with a parent of one of my students, we began talking about how my experiences made me who I was today. We talked about teaching, coaching, military life and about boarding school.

When he asked me about the boarding school I attended, he said, “Yes, we know that school. My dad and uncle went there.”  When I looked again at this parent’s name tag, I was taken back with emotion. His last name was Bogle. His uncle was Jack Bogle. We spent the next few minutes reminiscing about Jack. Jack was the founder, chairman and CEO of The Vanguard Group — a leader in mutual and index fund investing.

While I am not able to monetarily give the way Jack Bogle could give, I am grateful that I was able to play a role in the education of his great-nephew (Harry '16). Every time I enter my classroom, I’m grateful to Jack for his gift of education and grateful in general for the opportunity to educate my students at a mission-driven institution like Culver.

I have no doubt that in the future, one of them will use their time, talent or treasure to change the trajectory of a life, as Jack Bogle changed mine.

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