Our faculty and key partners from major public accounting firms embarked on an unprecedented collaborative effort to develop a Master of Science in Accountancy Program at St. Thomas. What resulted is a rigorous program that combines a leading-edge technical education with critical business skills such as communication and teamwork. All of it is delivered under an umbrella that emphasizes ethics and professional responsibility.
In July 2005, 16 talented students entered the MSA program as the founding cohort. And from its beginning, the MSA program challenged faculty and students to abandon their assumptions about traditional academic programs.
The one-year, single cohort-based program embraces a new vision of professional skill development, a coordinated advanced accounting curriculum and a substantial internship experience. "Our goal," said Chas McElroy, partner in charge of quality at LarsonAllen, "is to provide interns with tremendous 'real world' experience to add to what they've already learned in class."
The guaranteed paid internship - a key element of the St. Thomas MSA program - takes place in the middle of the program. The timing allows students to both apply what they've already learned and return to their final courses with added business perspective and context.
The initial test came when we sent our first class of students to their internship assignments. It's one thing to have a vision that includes the practical and human sides of business; it's another to carry out that vision successfully. We sought feedback from our students and business partners to help us assess our efforts.
Students were exposed quickly to complex financial reporting issues. As expected, they had the technical knowledge and confidence to effectively contribute to discussions regarding some of accounting's most technical issues. "I was given a project to discuss a client's foreign currency hedging process," said Chris Ellis, who interned at Deloitte. "At first, the client appeared hesitant to explain the process because he had never seen a young auditor who could follow it. I was able to comprehend what he was saying because of the process we had designed for our systems class. Both the client and the Deloitte senior accountant were surprised that our program had covered such difficult material in depth."
Through our coordinated curriculum, a unique aspect of St. Thomas' program, we explore key topics such as foreign currency hedging in multiple courses, thereby providing an unexpected depth of knowledge.
Just as important, we seek to teach students to actively embrace continual learning - a critical component of professional success. Reflecting on his internship experience at Ernst & Young, Henry Cruz stated, "Every day is a chance to learn something new."
When faced with the technical demands of public accounting, McGladrey & Pullen intern Julie Meyer was grateful for the skills she'd practiced in her Professional Communications class. "I'm now able to focus more on the content rather than the 'how' of what I want to communicate," Meyer said. Jessica Bailer, a PricewaterhouseCoopers intern, agreed: "The MSA program gave me the opportunity to learn and practice how to effectively communicate with clients at various management positions and skill levels, as well as how to work with different personality styles."
Mike Kroona was pleased that the professional skills emphasized in the program prepared him well for his internship with Grant Thornton: "I've already had many occasions to practice skills that I developed through the MSA program, especially the ability to work in teams. The program has many aspects that simulate the public accounting profession."
In addition to developing students' communication and teamwork skills, the program helps students improve their networking abilities. This allows them to make the most of their opportunities. "We got to meet people from many firms in the Twin Cities. Most new employees in accounting firms have the necessary technical skills, but the networking I did with people at all levels of each firm gave me an advantage when I started working for LarsonAllen," Jill Helling said.
After their June 2006 graduation, members of the first MSA cohort will be uniquely prepared to enter a profession founded on the principle of protecting the public interest. From faculty member Dr. Brian Shapiro's perspective, the most important influence he can have on his students is to encourage "socially responsible attitudes toward their future professional responsibilities and their roles in holding client managers accountable for reliable financial reporting."
"The St. Thomas MSA program is in the right place at the right time," states Bill Miller, audit partner with Ernst & Young. "It is providing the accounting profession with high-quality individuals at a time when they are needed most." He continued by saying that two strengths of the program that distinguish St. Thomas students from their peers are the rigorous academics and the training in general business skills: "Our St. Thomas interns are confident in their skills and prepared to accept the challenges of the profession."
Janice Raffield is the director of the MS in Accountancy Program and an associate professor in the College of Business.