From Lieutenant Commander to Founder of Divine Mercy Academy: Ali Ghaffari ’98 Shares on Educational and Military Experiences

Andover welcomed Ali Ghaffari ’98, a U.S. military veteran who served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, for Andover’s annual Veterans Day Program and Dinner on November 11. After graduating from Colby College, Ghaffari became a FT-18 Navy Pilot Fighter and founded his own school, Divine Mercy Academy.

Ghaffari decided to join the U.S. Navy immediately following his college graduation and attended Officer Candidate School afterwards. Ghaffari originally planned to go to med-school after college, but decided to embark on a career in the military after realizing that he lacked the financial means to go to med-school.

According to Ghaffari, his time in the military enabled him to grow as a leader. Despite being awarded medals and honors later in his career, Ghaffari attributed the hardships he faced and mistakes as learning opportunities about leadership. Reflecting on his task to organize relationships within a dysfunctional squadron, Ghaffari elaborated on the difficult processes of learning and doing his job correctly.

“The biggest challenge where I really learned how not to do leadership was my last tour flying FA-18s. I pretty much did everything wrong that you could do wrong in there. And so that turned into a situation where I hated going to work everyday. I honestly had no friends in the officer ranks. And it was a really hard place to be, to try to keep going in and try to be friendly and kind to everybody and hope to build relationships and get some traction,” said Ghaffari.

Through the help of his friends and peers, as well as his teaching experience, Ghaffari was able to develop into a leader and move past his past shortcomings. According to Ghaffari, his experiences in the military helped the interpersonal aspects of leadership positions.

Ghaffari added, “I really learned about leadership in the military. Before, I was more focused on getting things done, like the task element of leadership, but not the people element. At the naval academy, I taught leadership, which at first I felt like an imposter because I just failed. I was a terrible leader, and here I was teaching leadership. But through the process of teaching, you learn, and so I was able to learn about how to be a good leader through teaching it.”

In 2018, Ghaffari initially opened Divine Mercy Academy, a classical liberal arts K-8 school, for his children. He explained how the schools within driving distance did not provide the type of education he wanted for his daughters, leading him to establish one himself. Ghaffari added how his education and experiences at Andover inspired the values of the school.

“Coming [to Andover], my eyes were just wide open. It was so different. I came from a poor family in Vermont, and here I [was with] a Turkish prince in my dorm and an Indian prince and a brother of an NHL Hockey player. I had all these people in my dorm and in my classes, really smart people from all over the world. I saw, for the first time, the true beauty of diversity,” said Ghaffari.

He continued, “In Vermont, we’re all essentially white farmers up there. And coming down here and seeing that breadth was breathtaking. Simply, having a kid sitting next to you in class be from Hong Kong or from Nairobi, Kenya or Turkey or India, was crazy.”

According to Ghaffari, his transition to Andover engrained the importance of diversity. In contrast with his socioeconomic background of living in a predominantly white community, Andover provided him the unique experience that ultimately motivated him to make these opportunities and environments accessible for more students.

“At the end of the day, nothing was greater than the high academic standard and for me, the education was transformational from a poor but smart kid in Vermont with a limiting ceiling, the education here launched me. It was like a launch pad from that family situation into a place where I could do anything I want. The importance of education and the transformational power of education, I would say, was a big inspiration,” said Ghaffari.