How Berea prepared this 1995 alumna for a career she never expected
Imagine floating on the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean on the outskirts of Kodiak, Alaska, being at the helm of a 378-foot ship, bearing the responsibility for safely guiding it into port. For Deputy Commander Charlotte Mundy ’95, this was the setting in which all her training clicked, and she was able to give all the proper engine and helm commands to guide her first ship mooring nearly 18 years ago. There, in that Alaskan port, Mundy confirmed what has become a career-long enthusiasm for serving in the U.S. Coast Guard.
“I love driving ships,” Mundy said. “That might sound crazy, but there is something about putting a 378-foot ship where I want it to go—it’s an amazing feeling. Being able to do that myself is awesome, but it’s also incredible to teach others how to do it and share that joy with them.”
A career with the U.S. Coast Guard was not what Mundy ever imagined when she found herself looking through college catalogs in the library at Michigan State University one cold, winter night in early 1991. After one semester in Michigan, Mundy knew the huge university was not a good fit for her. She decided to search for other college possibilities. She got as far as the Bs in the alphabetical catalog before she stumbled across Berea College.
“I had never heard the concept of working for a school and not paying tuition,” she said. “I looked into it more and tried to find other schools with its mission, but Berea stuck with me. It resonated with me how Berea approached its focus on Appalachia and first-generation college students.”
Mundy went back home to Maryland that summer and transferred to Berea in the fall. The capricious 19-year old majored in agriculture, which was the closest she could come to environmental politics, she recalls. As to labor, she started out working in the weaving department before moving to the College farm for several years. Not finding her niche on the farm, she returned to weaving, where she crafted rag rugs under the direction of Bill Roberts. In all of these experiences, she discovered the value of creative and useful labor.
“Good hard work is good for you, and working for something can give you opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have—like the opportunity to directly contribute to my own education so closely,” Mundy said.
After graduating in December of 1995, Mundy went on to earn a master’s degree in horticulture sciences from North Carolina State University. She worked odd jobs for several years, including using her degrees in a nonprofit co-op in Abingdon, Va. She eventually moved to Wilmington, N.C., on a whim and fell in love with the beach community. Wilmington also happens to be a huge Coast Guard town. Though Mundy knew nothing about the Coast Guard before moving to the coastal community, at age 26 she decided to join the ranks for the adventure and a steady paycheck. What she thought would last maybe five years turned into a 19-year career.
Despite her education and background in agriculture not seeming to line up with an at-sea military vocation, her Coast Guard career became the culmination of the many ideas and concepts Berea had fostered in her, chiefly pride in workmanship and a love for diversity.
“This is not a typical career path for Berea College graduates, that’s for sure,” Mundy said. “One thing that makes me successful is the ability to see things from many different perspectives, and I first learned and was exposed to that at Berea.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is a maritime military service with both a law enforcement mission and a federal regulatory agency mission, and it holds jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters. As Mundy has risen through the Coast Guard ranks, she has served all over the country and the world, including supporting Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom in the Northern Arabian Gulf and conducting homeland security, law enforcement, and search-and-rescue missions in the main Hawaiian islands. She currently is stationed in Manama, Bahrain. Her duty assignments have surrounded her with diverse people and perspectives.
“I’m a huge believer in diversity and the power of different perspectives, upbringings and backgrounds,” Mundy said. “That’s what allows for creativity and ingenuity, and what brings it all together and makes it work. Being exposed to different people and cultures in the Coast Guard brought that home to me, but I think Berea made it normal for me—made it so I could accept it easily in the Coast Guard.”
Mundy’s career offered diverse experiences as well. With the Coast Guard’s law enforcement and homeland security mission, she has had many exciting encounters on open waters around the world. Once, she and her crew were 1,500 miles west of the Galapagos Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After 10 days of pursuing a drug smuggler, as the sun dawned on the horizon, they came across a fishing boat with 5 tons of cocaine stacked on deck, ready for transfer. They were able to seize all the drugs and detain the smugglers, keeping that massive amount of cocaine off the streets of the U.S.
“Every now and then I feel like I’m in a Hollywood movie,” Mundy said about her experiences. “Not all days are like that, but some are. There are many occasions on ship when I can’t believe what we just did—like landing a helicopter on a ship in the middle of the ocean—but teamwork makes it seem so normal, as people draw upon their different backgrounds and experiences.”
As a deputy commander, Mundy is responsible for using her experience to provide people an opportunity to be their best self by ensuring they have the tools, resources, time and equipment to successfully do their jobs.
“I take an immense amount of pride and delight in watching others be successful,” she said about her leadership role.
But even after 19 years and beginning to look toward retirement, Mundy said she still doesn’t truly know what she wants to be when she grows up. “I’m looking forward to what’s after the Coast Guard,” she said. “I don’t know what it will be, but I know I’ll have the opportunity to learn something new, and that potential gives me so much excitement.”