Illinois Internship Program Provides Access, Mentorship for Minority Students

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By Deanna C. White

This summer, Illinois accounting students Julia Haried and Takabvekure Buranda could have done what most college students do in the summertime: kicked their academic and career plans into neutral.

They could have gone on a long road trip, caught up on some much-needed downtime with family and friends, or punched the clock at their summer jobs – in Haried's case, dishing out Italian ices on hot summer afternoons in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood – to offset their college costs.

All ideas that would have made for great summers, to be sure.

But they certainly would not have been the "life-changing" summers the two created, thanks to the internships they secured through the Illinois CPA Society's (ICPAS)Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program.

The Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program, created in 2012, represents the ICPAS' ongoing commitment to increase diversity in the accounting profession by providing underrepresented minority students with access and exposure to the profession.

The program honors the example set by the country's first female, African-American CPA, Mary T. Washington Wylie – a "trailblazer for minorities in the accounting profession", says the ICPAS. In the spirit of her contributions to advancing diversity, this program "brings skill-building and internship opportunities to underrepresented minority students in Illinois."

This January, twenty-five minority sophomore and junior accounting students from Illinois schools participated in the inaugural internship prep program. The three-day, all-expenses-paid program, held in downtown Chicago, exposed students to the profession, practical training, and financial resources, and it also gave them access to mentors.

The extent of the program's scope is impressive, said Kari Natale, assistant director for the ICPAS and the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois, especially for an inaugural year. Students from sixteen Illinois schools, including community colleges and two-year schools that may not normally field requests from major accounting firms, participated, Natale said.

One of the greatest impacts of the Washington Wylie program, Natale says, is the fact that it draws students from schools and community colleges where major accounting firms may not typically recruit; exposing "hidden-gem" students to learning opportunities and top-tier talent they would likely never access on their own. 

The students spent the first two days of the program building self-esteem, their business skills, and their knowledge of the profession.

A panel of diverse young professionals spoke with students about what the business world expects of CPAs, how to conduct themselves throughout the internship, and how to turn that internship into a full-time opportunity. 

Natale said it was critical that students got the chance to hear from diverse mentors in the business world who authentically reflect the students' experience; many of whom got their start through an internship program.

And there was no shortage of diverse young mentors willing to share their experiences with the students, Natale said. Volunteers from the ICPAS' partnerships with the National Association of Black Accountants and the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, as well as Illinois accounting faculty and accounting firms, all stepped up to the plate.

"The firms were very supportive in providing volunteers and mentors, and so were our partners", Natale said. "So many people stepped forward to share their stories – to say 'I just got a job through an internship' or 'I'm doing a job I love, you could be doing it too.'"

Organizers also brought in top recruiters to help students learn how to stand out as job seekers, learn about the top skills prospective employers are looking for, and brush up on their internship and résumé skills.

"We brought in recruiters from some of the top companies to tell students what they look for in candidates and to help them with their résumés. You can't get much closer to hearing what recruiters are looking for than that", Natale said. 

On the third day of the program, all the scholars had the opportunity to interview for paid internships with some of the most prestigious accounting firms in the Chicagoland area, including Crowe Horwath LLP, Deloitte LLP, Grant Thornton LLP, EY LLP, and KPMG LLP. 

Natale said many of these firms already have minority recruiting and internship programs in place, but those programs more often reach out to larger four-year colleges and universities. The beauty of the Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program, Natale said, is it provided these larger firms an avenue to recruit interns from smaller colleges and community colleges in Illinois as well.

"They wanted us to find the hidden gems at smaller colleges", Natale said. "They told us 'if you find them and bring them up to speed, we have the internships for them.'"

Of the twenty-five students who attended the inaugural program in January and interviewed for internships, thirteen students secured paid internships for summer 2013 and winter 2013-2014. The first group, which included Haried and Buranda, completed their internships this summer. The second group will begin their internships this winter.

Natale said she believes students will excel in those internships because of the intense preparation completed through the program; preparation that will hopefully translate into full-time jobs at these firms when the students have completed their degrees.

Haried, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student who earned a spot in Deloitte's 2013 Discovery Summer Internship Program, agrees. Haried said she has had internships in the past, but she was never as fully prepared for an internship, or for her future career as a CPA, as she was after completing this program.

"The program taught me an enormous amount about the CPA profession, the culture of these firms, and how to take the CPA Exam, which is something I had never learned about before. I learned about the whole process of becoming a CPA", Haried said.

Haried said the program also gave her the unparalleled experience of having her résumé reviewed by industry insiders.

"I never had someone review my résumé from a firm/CPA perspective", Haried said. "It was very valuable."

Buranda, a student at Harold Washington, a community college in Chicago, did his summer internship at KPMG. This spring, Buranda told the ICPAS publication INSIGHT magazine, the internship prep program opened his eyes to opportunities he never knew existed.

"Being a Mary T. Washington Wylie Scholar will take me to places in my life I never even knew were possible", Buranda said in the spring 2013 issue of INSIGHT. "I believe this program has forever changed my future, my life, and my family's life."

Ultimately, Natale said, it's that "life-changing" impact of the Mary T. Washington Wylie program – its ability to open entirely new worlds to a new group of students – that sets it apart from any other program she's ever worked with.

"I've been in development for ten years now, and I've never seen anything like this work so well", Natale said. "We are literally changing students' lives. Thirteen students walked away with internships they never would have had without this program. Someone will literally walk into Deloitte or Grant Thornton this winter, knowing if that if they do well at their internship, they will likely have a job waiting for them when they graduate."

The Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program is funded by donations to the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois' Mary T. Washington Wylie Opportunity Fund. The fund was founded by Lester McKeever, CPA, JD, managing principal, Washington, Pittman & McKeever, LLC, and offers the community an opportunity to promote diversity and strengthen the accounting profession.

To learn more about the Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Program visit the ICPAS website

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