Academic Update

To enhance learning, mix education and service

Students apply skills learned in class in real-world settings while serving their community.
By Dawn Wotapka

To bring accounting to life for students, consider using a service-learning project. Blending academics and service, these projects benefit the student and the community. The results can enhance careers and change lives.

Students at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, don't just learn about cash collection and internal controls via textbooks. They apply the skills learned on behalf of a local not-for-profit that is working to create an urban farm, link rural farmers to local markets, and mentor at-risk youth.

Under the direction of Kimberly Tribou, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting, students prepare a process flow diagram for the cash collection and disbursement processes and offer recommendations on improving related internal controls. The project provides "students the opportunity to practice what they learned through their coursework," Tribou said. "The value to me is seeing my students directly apply what they learned in a real-world setting."

Blending project-based learning with community service is known as service-based learning, said education author Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. This allows students to work together as a group to learn practical skills, develop empathy for others, and, perhaps, gain the real-life experience they need to help select a career. The bigger goal, he added, is "about teaching students and [faculty] themselves as teachers the important place they have in the community."

Finding people and groups to work with may require stepping outside your department and networking, said Tribou. She has found not-for-profit organizations through her institution's Center for Free Enterprise Entrepreneurship, the Servant Leadership Program office, and the Center for Teaching Excellence. If your school doesn't have these exact departments, look for something similar at your or other schools. Also, she added, "I have handed out my business card to not-for-profits who were attending the annual community fair held on campus."

For accounting faculty, finding a suitable program can be as simple as looking for a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) grant program recipient. VITA partner organizations help lower-income households and others prepare taxes. Students at Saint Xavier University's Graham School of Management, in Chicago, partner with Chicago-based Ladder Up, which offers resources and assistance to help individuals and families move up the economic ladder. In one year alone, 14 student volunteers helped families receive nearly $150,000 in tax refunds, said Phyllis Cavallone-Jurek, Ladder Up's executive director. "Universities who share a deep commitment to instill values in their students through service-learning opportunities was a natural evolution of our service model," she said. "I think many [students] who participated would classify the experience as critical and important work. After working with just a few clients, most find deep meaning in the work knowing they were directly able to help find funding for families in deep need."

Indeed, participant Sarah Williams, CPA, an Illinois resident who now works for Deloitte, said that "what was initially a course requirement became an unforgettable experience that I strongly recommend any accounting student or professional take part in."

The students also learn professional development skills such as client interaction and networking with the professionals — including accountants from accounting firms — who participate, said Indranil Ghosh, Ph.D., director of the Graham School of Management. "It provides students with a ready-made vehicle to explore the development of real-world skills," Ghosh said.

Facts also come to life. At Manhattan College in Riverdale, N.Y., students work on the College Benchmark Ratio Project, which allows them to analyze the financial statements of their school and benchmark institutions to compute strategic financial analysis ratios for presentation to the college's CFO, controller, and officers of the Council for Faculty Affairs. The work helps stakeholders understand the school's liquidity and financial strength relative to its peers, said Mary Michel, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the school. But in a broader sense, "students gain an understanding of accounting for not-for-profit higher education institutions through a hands-on project instead of through the chapter in their text," she said.

Of course, students may need an incentive to do this nontraditional work. For Tribou's students, the control diagram assignment counts as 20% of the grade in a graduate accounting information systems course. At Saint Xavier, students can earn a three-hour elective credit. Regardless of why students participate, the results can also be long lasting. Graduates have reported that the projects helped them understand how classroom lessons can be applied in a real-world situation, leaving them feeling better prepared for answering CPA Exam questions and simulations and relating better to clients, said Tribou.

"Service learning is about the process from beginning to end. The whole experience can be a great one, especially when students are a part of the decision making," DeWitt said. It "can be life changing."

Williams, who worked with VITA, said a mother of three who received a larger-than-expected refund had a lasting impact on her. "I will never forget how relieved she was to have that extra money to care for her children," Williams recalled. "I have carried this memory throughout my life and career as a reminder to be grateful for everything I have."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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