The achievements of Lee University’s accounting alumni are adding up. Five of the department’s recent alum earned a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license, considered the highest standard of competence and only licensed qualification in the accounting profession.
Graduates Emily Collins, Carmen Jackson, Sarah Headrick, Mauricio Peraza, and Hillary Arant each demonstrated the knowledge and competence needed to be licensed by their state board of accountancy.
Emily Collins, a 2009 graduate, now works for Life Care Centers of America in Cleveland as a tax manager of special projects. In addition to preparing tax returns, she manages unusual tax situations and assists the senior vice president with projects.
“With a CPA license, my boss has a lot of comfort in my work as well as consultants outside our company – in part due to my credentials,” she said.
Ms. Collins started her career as an intern while she was still at Lee. “After graduating, the company was very impressed with my work, and I was able to transfer to the tax department where I am today,” she said.
Carmen Jackson, a May 2011 graduate, also works at Life Care Centers of America in Cleveland. Starting as a corporate accounting intern in 2009, Carmen now works as a staff accountant in the Facility Financial Services department where she oversees the financials of ten Life Care nursing facilities across the country.
“It’s surprising what a difference it makes to have those three letters after your name,” she said. “I feel as though it shows my current employer and any future employers that I am serious about my accounting career.”
According to Ms. Jackson, most accountant job postings include ‘CPA preferred, but not required.’ “That note tells me that I’ll have an advantage in the job market over those who are not certified,” she said.
Another May 2011 graduate, Mauricio Peraza, works on staff at the accounting firm Ernst & Young in Chattanooga. Mr. Peraza passed the fourth and final section of the exam in August 2011.
“Passing the exam in an early stage of my career has given me both credibility and a better understanding of accounting matters,” he said. “Life after graduation just gets busier. There was no better time to sit for the exam than when in school.”
Sarah Headrick, a 2009 graduate, is a staff account at Harting, Bishop & Arrendale, PLLC in Chattanooga.
“Before I took the CPA exam I felt like I was hitting a wall on understanding certain concepts to progress in my position at HBA,” Ms. Headrick said. “After passing the exam, I am much more prepared to take on new projects and clients that present a challenge to our firm.”
And the start of this year, ’07 grad Hillary Arant opened her own firm.
“The core of my business revolves around tax planning and filings, helping start-up businesses and non-profits with reporting and compliance issues, and assisting my clients in creating efficient bookkeeping processes.
“Passing the exam has allowed me to transition from the traditional career path into a self-employed role,” she said.
Three E’s: Education, Examination, Experience
State boards require all CPA candidates to complete the “Three Es” – education, examination and experience. To be licensed in Tennessee, a candidate must complete a 150-hour education requirement, which includes passing courses in accounting and business, as well as passing the CPA exam and completing a minimum of 2,000 hours of general accounting experience.
Lee’s accounting program is designed to help students excel across all three areas.
EDUCATION: Foundation to excel
Gregory Della Franco, assistant professor of accounting at Lee, is committed to prepare Lee’s rising accounting students with the education and training needed to become a licensed accountant.
“Our goal for the accounting program is to attract good students and prepare them well,” Mr. Della Franco said. “Passing the exam opens doors for students. It tells an employer how serious you are about your career.”
To achieve this goal, Lee’s accounting degree offers courses to introduce students to material on the CPA exam and knowledge that can be applied in their career.
“Every accounting class prepared me for the exam and was extremely important for my development as an accounting professional,” Mr. Peraza said.
And according to Ms. Headrick, the material covered in her accounting classes is still applicable.
“Today, as I work on various clients, I can remember going over the same concepts in my accounting classes at Lee,” she said. “What I learned in class has truly presented itself in real life situations here at work.”
The CPA graduates also attribute the success of their educational experience to the personal investment of assistant professor of accounting Gregory Della Franco and other business faculty.
According to Ms. Arant, Lee’s accounting program laid the groundwork for her understanding and knowledge of accounting. “Through Mr. Della Franco’s introduction to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, I discovered my love for tax work.
“To me, part of enjoying the line of work you are in is the desire to help others understand and feel comfortable with the principles of your work,” she said.
Ms. Headrick added, “The support and encouragement that I received from Mr. Della Franco has been such a blessing. I don’t believe that I would have made it through the year of taking the CPA exam without him cheering me on. He is a true example of what I believe a Lee professor should be.”
EXAMINATION: Preparation to Pass
Developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the CPA exam is designed to assess the knowledge and skills that entry-level CPAs need to practice public accountancy. Questions include highly innovative simulations that replicate situations found in the workplace.
With a total test time of 14-hours, the computer-based exam is composed of four sections: auditing and attestation; business environment and concepts; financial accounting and reporting; and regulation.
Mr. Della Franco noted the exam is now oriented toward textbook material, which is an advantage for current students who have preparation on hand.
“We try to get freshman on the right track toward a CPA early on,” he said.
Mr. Della Franco cites the average study time as around 20 hours per week for each section for multiple weeks before the exam.
“There is a real intensity of study,” Mr. Della Franco said. “However, there is a great advantage for students because they are prepared to be successful in accounting and finance within any industry.”
During the weeks before sitting section of the exam, Ms. Collins said she studied three to five hours a day on weekdays and seven to 10 hours on weekends while balancing a full class load and 15-20 hours per week at her internship.
Within the past two years, she has been promoted in her position at Life Care from staff to senior to manager. “With my education, I have been able to display my knowledge and strong work ethic on the job that has allowed me to be promoted quickly,” she said.
Because of the CPA exam’s extensive preparation and expensive fees, Lee’s business department offers an intensive-four month review program open to the Cleveland community.
The program is taught by Mr. Della Franco, who has more than 30 years of professional experience in the accounting field.
“We’ve designed this program for members of our community who wish to get top-notch, on-site instruction and get ready to pass the exam within the year,” Mr. Della Franco said. The prep sessions are grouped according to the actual CPA exam format.
To begin preparing for the exam, Ms. Jackson took Lee’s CPA review course during her senior year.
“The class gave me the opportunity to study for the exam with others that were also preparing to take it. Mr. Della Franco was very encouraging and helpful, and he provided guidance throughout the class,” she said.
EXPERIENCE: Lee Offers Free Tax-Prep to Community
Lee’s accounting program also provides training outside the classroom through exposure to real-world situations and opportunities to serve.
Through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, a partnership between Lee and the Internal Revenue Service, students provide free tax return services for any taxpayer whose maximum gross annual income does not exceed $50,000.
VITA’s free tax preparation services are administered by qualified junior and senior accounting students every Friday and Saturday until the April 15 filing deadline. Participating students must pass an IRS administrated exam with a score of 80 percent or higher to receive VITA certification.
In 2011, Lee’s VITA filed over 600 tax returns, totaling nearly $720,000 in refunds back to the Cleveland and Bradley County communities. A record-breaking amount of $725,000 in refunds was generated this spring.
Hannah Devine, a senior business and accounting double major, has volunteered with VITA since her sophomore year.
“VITA has been very enriching. I absolutely love filing returns and helping the community; it is a unique type of service that is great preparation for the future,” she said.
She described the biggest challenge of the service as the beginning of tax season when the most returns are filed. “Each return is unique and has to be treated that way,” she said.
The rewards, according to Ms. Devine, are the real-world experience that prepares her for the competitiveness in the business world.
“I enjoy working with taxpayers and use my knowledge to help the community at no charge, which gives the returns back to the community. There is nothing more rewarding than putting a smile on their faces,” she said
Mr. Della Franco began the program at Lee six years ago.
“Because of the economic effects on many taxpayers, this free tax preparation service is offered to their advantage,” Mr. Della Franco said.
Though preparing for an accounting career can be intense, Lee University equips its accounting students to face challenges beyond the classroom by laying a foundation for success inside it.