Student Success Story: Using Numbers to Help People

Coastline student Emma Kim couldn’t decide between studying law and accounting, but working for nonprofits helped her realize her true passion for numbers.

A student's hand working on an assignment, with the line "Friday Features: Student Success Stories"

After working for almost a decade for various nonprofits and companies, Emma Kim was ready for a change of pace; she wanted more, she told me in an interview. In her undergraduate work, she studied Political Science and Economics as well as served as President of her college’s Women’s Law Association.

“Shortly after college, I did apply to law school,” Emma told me. Her intention was in fact to be a lawyer, but she realized she had a “love for numbers and helping people,” and that pursuing justice through law school was not the only way to help.

As many readers of this blog can probably attest to or guess at, I am not known as what’s called a “numbers person.” I am a writer, after all, a group basically famous for our lack of numerical knowledge (though there are exceptions of course). In fact, in numerous previous posts, I’ve offered examples of that ineptitude, either in the form of jokes or as cautionary tales of anxiety. But talking to Emma, I gained a whole new respect and understanding of what being a “numbers person” really means.

In accounting, Emma said, “when you help clients you’re not just helping the business’s bottom line. Your advice, your execution, and your care can often benefit larger groups of people,” including shareholders, employees, and create ripple effects beyond the company to other stakeholders in the industry. It’s a perspective I hadn’t yet encountered, a notion that numbers, in this corporate context, could actually assist a company or group of executives.

Emma was also attracted to the variety she found in accounting: “It is not about just pairing financial statements. You can be a tax consultant, risk consultant, business advisor, auditor,” and more besides. She went to a number of virtual conferences and seminars in order to learn more about the varying sub-disciplines and aspects of accounting.

At these sparsely attended events, she asked representatives of the different areas to walk her through their jobs and their work, gauging for herself what stood out from the pack, what was interesting and what wasn’t.

This raises another point Emma made to me, not so much in her words, but in her manner and approach to accounting and, it seems, life in general. When the pandemic struck, putting millions out of work, she didn’t halt her efforts to achieve her goals. She kept learning about accounting, including enrolling in courses at Coastline, and working at her day job, all while being a single mom and, with help from her parents, juggling raising two kids.

A young boy plays with blocks while his single mom works nearby.

“When my kids are in school,” Emma said, “I have to sit next to them to make sure everything goes fine,” a circumstance I’m sure many parents are familiar with right now. As she did that she worked. She also applied and was accepted to a top graduate school, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, to pursue her Master’s in Accounting.

Most people would have taken that accomplishment, the fact that they were still working and trying to keep their kids safe, happy, and entertained during a pandemic, and figured they were doing all they needed to be doing. But Emma wanted to prepare herself for her graduate schooling in the Fall.

“Yes, I was an Economics major in undergrad, but I didn’t remember a lot of it,” she said. She wanted to take online courses, even just a few to ensure she would be ready. And that’s where Coastline came in.

A young woman works on her accounting business.

“The accounting classes I have taken thus far have exceeded my expectations,” Emma said. “As a student who has been out of school for almost ten years, I really appreciated that the students at Coastline came from all walks of life.” She talked about the faculty, particularly Professor Kevin Erdkamp, who teaches Financial Accounting as well as other courses, and their ability to weave their real-life experiences and examples into the curriculum.

The same was true for other students too: “My classroom discussions with other students at Coastline have helped me to apply concepts to the real world which was an invaluable asset to the learning process.”

Emma even took accounting courses at Coastline she wouldn’t even necessarily need to start off her graduate school; she did it to acquire more insight and knowledge into accounting, never knowing when that knowledge may pay off. After attending more conferences, Emma was able to attain a tax internship with a national CPA firm, but instead of starting next summer, they want her to begin working in January. In an email, Professor Erdkamp said, with the notes of admiration and awe detectable even through text: “I can honestly say I have never heard of this happening.”

A desk set up of monitors and computers and papers.
Emma’s Work From Home Workspace, courtesy of Emma Kim

At the end of my call with Emma I asked what advice she had for those pursuing accounting, or just for life in general. And that’s when she brought up being persistent. Life has thrown a lot her way; she’s a single parent, juggling work and school, and in the middle of making an entire career change, which means a drop in pay, potentially moving, and a whole lot more besides, all while we’re in the midst of a global pandemic we haven’t seen the back of yet.

Life throws a lot all our ways. The old saying about war that you can plan and strategize, but in the end, whatever happens, happens just as easily refers to life’s general messiness. Emma was persistent, even in the face of uncertainty and unexpected difficulties, like the pandemic. But, as she told me, she just kept networking, working, raising her kids, and attending Coastline online, and she’ll continue to persist as she heads off to grad school, and to new possibilities, in the New Year.

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