Drawn to Service

“IT CERTAINLY WASN’T INTENTIONAL at the time, but in retrospect, my draw to the Naval Academy was completely in line with Taft’s motto,” admits Fiona McFarland ’04. “My upper mid and senior years especially, I was very aware of how lucky I was, and I wanted to give back for all that I had been given.”

This desire to serve, which first took hold during her time at Taft, has gone on to drive many of McFarland’s life decisions, including her most recent ambition: being elected to the Florida State House.

After graduating from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2008, McFarland spent eight years on active duty, including six and a half years at sea. “We patrolled parts of the Western Pacific and South China Sea and later supported Operation Enduring Freedom in the Middle East,” she says. “My team and I were in charge of all of the engineering equipment— from powering the ship’s propulsion to working with onboard systems like electricity, pumps, air conditioning, and auxiliary equipment to provide fresh water. We also powered the combat systems and weapons.”

Even as she rose through the ranks, McFarland also prepared for her eventual transition back into civilian life. While assigned to a ship that was in the process of being constructed, she took advantage of the downtime and earned an online MBA from UNC Chapel Hill. Then, in 2016, when she went on to reserve duty, McFarland landed a position with the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “We advised companies from every industry, so it was a great opportunity for me to see as much of the private sector as I could,” she says. “At that point, all I had known was government work. Every different client project that I took, I wanted it to be in a different industry, be that consumer products, pharmaceuticals, chemical companies, you name it.

“The work was really engaging, and we had fantastic clients,” she adds, “but I started to miss service.” When she again found herself looking to give back, McFarland realized that involvement in local government might offer an opportunity. “I was raised to believe that government service was an honorable line of work,” she says. “My mother, K.T. McFarland, started as a typist in college during the Nixon administration. She worked her way up to become Henry Kissinger’s research assistant and protégée and then served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs under Reagan.”

McFarland at a campaign event with Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw as she runs for the Florida State House, District 72, for S

McFarland at a campaign event with Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw as she runs for the Florida State House, District 72, for Sarasota.

Initially, though, Fiona McFarland was hesitant to follow her mother’s path. “I saw all of the partisanship on Capitol Hill, and it wasn’t what I believed governance should be,” she says. “But the only way that we can change what we don’t like about the world is to take hold of it ourselves, so I started to show up and look for ways that I could plug in to the local issues.

“This is super nerdy,” she says, “but one weekend, I went up to Tallahassee and visited the State Capitol. I just sat in the Capitol Gallery and watched the state representatives debate legislation. It was fascinating, and I really wanted to get involved and know what folks were dealing with on the state level.”

McFarland became increasingly involved in political clubs and got to know a number of legislators, so when a seat for her district representative opened up, she saw a place where she could really make a difference. “Our population has expanded at a very rapid rate,” she points out. “Just under 1,000 people move to the state every day. The state leadership definitely has the responsibility to plan to accommodate this expansion— from infrastructure and roads to something as mundane as the sewage system—and I want to be a part of that process.”

McFarland acknowledges that she has her work cut out for her—especially since, only a few months into the campaign, she and her husband welcomed their first child. “It’s really anybody’s race,” she says, “but no matter what, it’s definitely going to be an exciting year.”

—Christopher Browner ’12