Persevering through a career pivot

Monique Zhao MAcc ’20 was working as a payroll and benefits specialist for GE’s Shanghai office when she received an outreach email about a Master of Accounting (MAcc) program at Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary in the United States.

In the seven years since she had graduated from Fudan University in China with a Bachelor’s degree in Law and Public Administration, Zhao worked for well-known companies like Tesco, IKEA, and finally, GE in the bustling epicenter of China’s most populated city.

“I think they were reaching out to me because of my GMAT score,” Zhao explained. “I had not heard of [William & Mary] before, but I quickly became very interested in the program.”

As a human resources professional specializing in payroll accounting, Zhao knew she liked – and was good at – the financial and accounting elements of her job. She also had a natural understanding of how the complex systems at each of her employers worked to process information. But she wasn’t sure if her innate abilities were enough for her to be successful in a more business-oriented role.

“I realized that I had these skills that I had not necessarily utilized before,” she said. “It made me curious about whether I could move into a field like finance or accounting.”

So, when William & Mary’s MAcc program email landed in Zhao’s inbox, she began researching different graduate programs that could provide her with knowledge and skills she needed to make a career pivot. While there were many reputable programs to choose from, she decided on William & Mary because of the school’s emphasis on how accounting fits into the broader context of business instead of focusing on just the techniques learned from textbooks.

Zhao was accepted into the program with the class of 2019 cohort. She planned to move to Williamsburg over the summer in order to attend the MAcc program’s Summer Boot Camp but she was unable to secure the requisite paperwork needed by an international student in time.

“I needed a three-month visa that I could not get right away,” she explained.

Though she was disappointed, the deferment afforded Zhao the opportunity to take time to complete the prerequisites she needed to sit for the CPA exam.

“What was initially quite stressful ended up being quite advantageous, because I was still able to work towards achieving my goal,” she said.

Ultimately, Zhao moved to the United States in the winter of 2018 and began her studies with the MAcc class of 2020 cohort. The move, however, did not come without its challenges and it took her some time to adjust to a slower pace of life.

“I had been In Shanghai for more than 10 years, and was very used to big cities,” she said. “Williamsburg is quite a small town!”

There have been many highlights for Zhao during her time in the program, but she particularly enjoyed the lessons she learned in Driving Organizational Performance because of their applications in a real-world business environment.

“The professor would randomly assign teams which got us out of our comfort zone,” she explained. “Then, he would assign us the task of creating a presentation on different topics, but we never knew who was going to present in class that day; he randomly decided. That class taught me a lot about handling the unexpected, as well as cooperating with others.”

As she looked towards graduation, Zhao had two goals: to pass the CPA exam and to secure a full-time job in Washington, DC. Her job search proved to be more challenging then she had anticipated, so she made the decision to take a break from what she described as a “really intense and rigorous” process and instead, refocused her efforts on studying for the CPA exam.

“I finished [sitting for the CPA] in January. After that, I found a job within a week,” she said.

While her journey has not been without its challenges along the way, Zhao is happy that she made the decision to persevere and complete the MAcc program at the Mason School as she has benefited immensely both professionally and personally.

“William & Mary has been such a pleasant surprise,” she said. “I met my significant other at William & Mary and I am all around thankful for the opportunities here.”