Mar 16, 2009
When Theresa Cross discovered she was about to become a single mom, she knew she needed to find a better job. She never dreamed that a class at FVTC would uncover her aptitude for accounting, and change her life forever.
Growing up, Theresa Cross was always on the move, and a little bit of a maverick.
“My family is pretty nontraditional,” she says. “My mom and I were on our own and we moved around a lot. In my younger years, it seemed like I went to a different school every year.”
Theresa moved to Kaukauna when she was in high school. “I struggled right away,” she recalls. “It seemed like I had to spend most of my time and energy trying to fit in—and I just wanted to learn. It was such a waste, and I ended up quitting.”
Although Cross quit high school, she wasn’t about to quit learning. Her mom hired a student from Lawrence University in Appleton to tutor her in math. Theresa bought General Educational Development (GED) preparation books for other subjects she needed to master to earn her GED credential and complete the work herself.
After completing her GED studies, Cross decided to “see the world.” She went to Louisiana to meet her father. She spent time following the fusion jam band Phish around the country from concert to concert. Her nomadic lifestyle limited her career opportunities, so she grabbed what work she could—for the most part tending bar or working as a waitress.
And then one day when Cross was 26, everything changed. “I found out I was pregnant,” she says. “I knew I had to reevaluate my lifestyle and future.”
Thinking she might build on her work experience, she signed up for a business math class at Fox Valley Technical College’s Appleton campus. She did so well that her instructor, David Nunenkamp, took notice. “He told me I had the brain of an accountant,” Cross recalls. “And he told me I might find job opportunities and great pay in accounting.”
A little encouragement was all she needed. She enrolled in FVTC’s associate degree Accounting program and began taking classes.
Support Network Extraordinaire
While returning to school seemed like a good idea, Cross soon discovered how difficult it was to go to school, work, and care for her daughter, Ava, all at the same time. “The first semester, I only signed up for eight credits, but it was about all I could handle,” she recalls. “I’d go to school all day, come home to take care of Ava, and try to get my homework done too.”
Still, she found creative ways to meet the demands of her schedule. For example, she read her accounting homework to her daughter in place of bedtime stories. “The only thing that mattered to Ava was that I made it sound like a story,” she recalls, laughing.
Despite the challenges, Cross fell in love with accounting. She went to school year-round and thrived in the classroom, maintaining a 3.5+ grade point average throughout her time at FVTC. “Theresa caught on quickly,” says Dr. Verne Bryers, chair of FVTC’s Accounting department and Cross’ instructor for several classes.
“Our classes are more hands-on than most four-year programs,” Bryers adds. “And group work is essential. Theresa soon developed a real knack for the team approach.”
Cross credits her success to the extraordinary support she received both in and out of school. From her mom and her stepdad, to Ava’s father and his family, to friends and neighbors, she never lacked for people willing to help. And that includes almost everyone she came in contact with at FVTC—from her instructors to the people in the financial aid office, to her fellow students. “I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t supportive,” she says.
Nunenkamp was one of several FVTC instructors who provided recommendations and helped Cross apply for scholarships. While at FVTC, she was awarded three scholarships and received a number of federal Pell Grants. In the end, she was able to pay for almost her entire education through various forms of financial aid.
Quite often, the support Cross received from the people at FVTC went well beyond the call of duty. Carole Schroeder, an instructional aide in the accounting lab, helped Cross with her homework and even assisted her in finding a part-time job. “She became a close friend,” says Cross.
Cross graduated from FVTC in December 2008. In all, it took her three years to complete the Accounting program. By comparison, it took almost no time at all to find the kind of job she’d been hoping for.
Shortly after graduation, Cross began—and ended—her job search. At the Career Fair on the Fox, a public job fair sponsored through FVTC’s Student Employment Services and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, she met Dawn Johanknecht, a certified public accountant and a principal with Suby, Von Haden & Associates, a Madison-based accounting firm with offices around the Midwest. “I was very impressed with her right away,” says Johanknecht. “Her enthusiasm and ability to communicate, along with the way she presented herself, convinced me to ask her back for a full interview the next day.”
On January 5, Cross accepted a position as an associate accountant in the firm’s Neenah office. In addition to a full range of accounting services for businesses and individuals, Suby offers wealth management and information technology consulting. “Theresa is working on bookkeeping, payroll processing, preparing tax returns, and more,” says Johanknecht, who adds that Cross is off to a good start.
Although the pace of her new job gets frantic at times, things aren’t all that much different than when she was going to school. Except now she has a regular paycheck, health insurance, and other benefits—and a job that is exceeding her expectations. Cross, who will turn 30 in April, also has a fiancé, Kyle, who has been very supportive of all the new dimensions in her life.
“I never imagined that with an associate degree I could start out with such a great job and such a nice salary,”
she says. “And it’s pretty cool, too, that there’s a place like FVTC, where what matters most is your determination.”
Even during uncertain economic conditions, the accounting field remains steady.
Theresa Cross is amazed that she earned a great job with an associate degree in Accounting. Dawn Johanknecht isn’t.
“Accounting firms like ours are hiring more and more graduates with two-year degrees,” says Johanknecht, a CPA and principal with Suby, Von Haden & Associates. “We’ve had so much success with them; we often joke about wanting to clone them.”
FVTC Accounting program graduates possess the right mix of skills, according to Johanknecht. “The curriculum at FVTC, with its emphasis on computers and technology and the use of integrated accounting software, gives students exactly the kind of preparation we’re looking for,” she says.
“There are many jobs for people with associate degrees,” adds Dr. Verne Bryers, chair of FVTC’s Accounting department. “With everything going on in the economy these days, there’s an even greater need for accountants to ensure compliance with regulations.”
Whatever the cause, recent research supports the contentions of Johanknecht and Bryers. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that the overall demand for accountants and auditors will grow by almost 18% between 2006 and 2016; more than 225,000 new accountants and auditor positions will need to be filled.
What’s more, according to a recent survey of more than 3,500 working accountants conducted by Payscale.com, accountants with associate degrees were earning almost as much ($40,448) per year as accountants with bachelor’s degrees ($42,463). The survey did not provide information about how long respondents had been in the workplace.