Accounting student masters second chance at life

Hosted by Neil Amato

Terrell Williams is about to graduate with a master's degree in accounting. That's something he never would have considered after dropping out of college nearly 10 years ago.

A chance event in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., changed everything for Williams. He nearly died outside a convenience store one March afternoon. "My time was ticking," he said.

In this episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast, Williams explains what happened, how he viewed it as the "start of a new life," how he found accounting, and why he's living life with more purpose.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Williams' recount of the life-changing events of March 29, 2017, in Louisville, Ky.
  • Why he said his first attempt at attending college didn't go well.
  • The volunteer work Williams does in his hometown.
  • Some of Williams' mentors, outside of the family that he says "raised me right."
  • What's next for Williams after graduation from the master's in accounting program at N.C. State.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato. My guest on this episode is Terrell Williams, a master's in accounting student at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. This is the first student interview I've done for the JofA podcast, and pretty soon I think you, the listeners, will see what's special about Terrell Williams' story and why we're having him on the show. First, Terrell, thank you for being on the podcast, I'm hoping you can tell me some about the events of March 2017 that changed your life.

Terrell Williams: Well, first, thank you for having me on the show today, Neil. It's very nice to be here, and I appreciate you allowing me to share my story. March 29, 2017, my day started out just like any normal day, went to work, had a normal day at work. Things started to change as I got off work and was heading over to my brother's house. I stopped at the store, but as I quickly ran inside, I just left my car running. I didn't think about it too much. I knew I was going into the store, I was coming right back out, and so I knew I would be in there less than a minute. I go into the store and, as I'm coming back out, I see my windshield wipers moving on my car.

It was weird because it was a sunny day, it was bright sunny, and I knew I didn't leave my windshield wipers on when I went to the store. As I keep looking at my car, I zoomed in past the wipers into the actual driver's seat. When I did that, I actually saw a guy sitting in my driver's seat. What he was attempting to do is actually steal my car. I left the car running, and I guess he just thought it was an easy target; he can get a car and be gone. During this point in my life, I carry my gun with me regularly, everybody did. For me it was just simple self-protection. If something was to go wrong, I knew I'll be OK.

In this moment my natural reaction kicks in. I pull out my gun, I cock it back, and I just aim it at the guy attempting to steal my car. As soon as I did that, I just felt something pierce my right side. What I never noticed was the guy who was attempting to steal my car, he had multiple people across the street looking out for him. As soon as they saw my gun, they all started shooting. One of the guys, his bullet actually hit me in my chest. It went through my chest on the right side, through my right lung, and clipped my spine on the way out of my back. Instantly, I fall to the ground, but when I fall to the ground, now I'm just hearing gunshots all around me. I just jump into survival mode, because when I fell I dropped my gun close to me.

I pick up my gun and I just started shooting at the only target I saw. That was actually the guy who was driving away on my car because at this point he's driving away. Luckily, I didn't hit anybody, I hit my car pretty bad. Luckily, that was it, and so all the gunshots actually stopped, and when the gunshot stopped, I attempted to get up off the ground. But no matter how hard I tried, I just could not get up off the ground. I looked like a fish on dry land, I guess you could say, just flopping back and forth, kept trying to get up. I'm like, ''What's going on? Like did I get shot in my legs?'' I don't know what's going on.

I reached down, grabbed my thighs, and my thighs just felt like bags of water. Instantly, I started panicking because I knew something was wrong. Of course, at the time, I didn't know what it was, but I just knew something was wrong. I later found out that it was actually the bullet that hit me in my chest and the spine, it caused me to be paralyzed from the waist down. That's the reason I couldn't get off the ground. Like I said, unaware at the time that I was paralyzed, I continued to try to get up, but as I'm trying to get up now all the gunshots return. The guy who was attempting to steal my car, he ended up wrecking 10, 15 yards away from me, but I never saw him wreck.

When he wrecked, he didn't want the car anymore. He just wanted to kill me. He got out of the car. He walked around the car, and he started walking towards me shooting his gun several times, and I'm literally laying on the ground. I can't get up, but I'm literally seeing bullets hit on the left side, right side, left side, right side, and I'm seeing concrete chip up, sparks flying and everything, and I just knew it was a matter of time before one of those bullets he shot was actually going to hit me. I wish I was wrong, but it was actually the last bullet that he shot hit me in the right side of my neck and then it got stuck in the left side of my chin. As soon as I felt that, I just instantly quit moving. Because I knew if I was to keep moving, there was a chance that more bullets might come my way, and, of course, I didn't want that to happen. I just played dead and just waited. Probably waited like 30 seconds. In my mind, I just knew I was about to die because there was no way that I was going to survive a bullet to the chest and a bullet to the neck.

Amato: You said you played dead, but did you fear that you were going to die?

Williams: Yeah. I definitely played dead, just stopped moving and just laid as still as possible. But in my mind, I just, my time was ticking. I didn't want to waste the two or three minutes left that I had. That's why I felt like playing dead was the best option.

Amato: How old are you when this happens in 2017?

Williams: I was 21 years old.

Amato: What's the next thing that happened that day to you?

Williams: The next thing that happened, I waited and I just needed to do one more thing before I actually passed away, I guess. That was pray, and so I just started praying. Saying the same thing over: "God, please take care of me." He obviously did because I'm able to talk to you today, but in that moment, it was like something clicked and he said, "You're not dead yet, what are you doing? Why do you think you're going to die? I got you, you're covered." That's when it hit me that, "Well, now I need to try to get help." Maybe I can live; we'll see. I don't know what's going to happen, I know there's a lot of people outside, so maybe somebody can help me.

Because it was at least 15, 20 people outside that day. It's a miracle that nobody else actually got hit. But I remember looking over across the street, and I saw a lady standing on her porch and I asked her, "Hey, can you come over? I need your help real fast." She replied to me, "They are on the way." I'm talking about the police and the ambulance. "They're on their way." I said, "OK, that's fine, but I need you to come over here real fast." When she came over, it was like everybody came over. I almost was like a crumb on the ground and ants were coming towards the crumb. That's how fast it seemed like everybody came and just surrounded me. There was a circle around me.

But when she got over there, I asked her, I said, "Hey, can you please call my brother for me?" Because my brother literally lived 10 houses away from where it happened. She called him, and he didn't answer. She said, ''He didn't answer." I said, "No, call him right back." She called him right back and he answered. I remember her saying, "Hey, your brother has just been shot. He's up here at the store on 41st and Bank at the corner. Probably 30 seconds later, I felt like my brother was in my face.

I know he just ran out the house, left the door open, everything. He just ran out the house, and the next thing I know, I see him in my face. In this moment, there was a chance that I could still die, of course. I was telling him, I said, because we call each other "bruh." So I was like, "Bruh, just tell mama, daddy, granny, tell everybody I love them. All right. I'm sorry. I don't know. I just don't know, I'm sorry." Just trying to get my last word relayed to him. To tell him, "Tell everybody I love them." He just continued to tell me, "You're going to be good, you're going to be fine. You're good, I'm seeing you, you're going to be good, you're still talking, you're still breathing, just stay with us. Stay with me."

Then a few minutes later the ambulance showed up. I remember them coming ripping off my shirt, started holding bandages on my side, on my right side, holding bandages on my neck. Then they hurry up and loaded me in the car, and my brother was actually trying to get in the car to the ambulance, and they wouldn't let him. But they definitely got me to the hospital, it felt like two minutes, so I was just blessed. Super blessed.

Amato: You decide that you've got a second chance, and you decide to make something of that chance?


Williams: Definitely that's the words I would use, too, a second chance, because that day really was the start of a new life for me. Doing something for 21 years, walking, jumping. At that point, I was fully independent, and it was like I was reverted back to a newborn baby. I had to rely on my mama, I had to rely on my dad, I had to rely on everybody for support. I just really had to figure out where to go from there, because like I said, I was 21, had all these plans, fully independent, and now I'm a newborn again.

I just had to reassess and just working with different people, trying to see how to move forward because all of my job experience before this, prior to this event happening was all physical labor, warehouse jobs, driving jobs. Unfortunately, I just couldn't do that anymore. I just really had to figure out how to still use the skills that I had to live a productive life. Because at first before this event happened, I felt like I was just existing. But after the event, I was trying to live with a purpose and actually try to find something that was actually meaningful in life.

Amato: Before this event, you had gone to college for a little bit, but it didn't in your mind work out?

Williams: Correct. I tried to go to NKU, Northern Kentucky University. I went there about a year after high school graduation. I went for a semester, tried the classes, and just school just did not feel like it was for me. I couldn't keep up, as far as with the material. I didn't want to attend class, and nobody was forcing me. I just was irresponsible at that time, I guess you could say, and not motivated to actually go through with school.

I ended up dropping out after a semester. I thought I would never go back to school again. But when this event actually happened in working with different community members in different community, organizations, specifically Pivot to Peace, they are a University of Louisville trauma-based initiative that works with gunshot and stabbing victims directly in the hospital.

Working with the organization, my mentor, case manager, Derrick Mitchell. He started asking me, "What are you going to do? You got to figure out something. Have you ever thought about going to school again?" I said, "Well, maybe I would do it, but I don't know what I would go for because I do need to try something new. I'm willing to step out of my comfort zone to see where it will take me.''

I remember we were talking, a typical accounting story. I liked math in high school, and so I thought it was the same. I took an accounting class, quickly, found out that it is not the same at all. But I did it fall in love with that accounting class, and I knew that that was exactly what I wanted to do, and so I just continued to pursue accounting and that's what led up to today.

Amato: Who, in a few words was Terrell Williams before March 29, 2017, and who is Terrell Williams today?

Williams: Before March 29, 2017, Terrell was the same guy that he is now but just living without a purpose, so just simply existing. Just going through the motions. More so not worried about society or worried about other people but more so focused on myself and what I could do for my family.

But after March 29, 2017, I realized that the true meaning of a life is bigger than what I thought it was. Actually, helping others and giving back and being a role model and doing stuff that people might've said that you couldn't do, and just doing what you want to do and putting your mind to it, so really just trying to live with that purpose and living intentional, rather than just existing and going with emotions.

Amato: What are some of the ways that you are a role model? What are some of the causes that you're part of, especially in Louisville?

Williams: In Louisville, I'm involved with a couple of different groups. One of those being Frazier Rehab and the University of Louisville Hospital. What I do there is I help work with the spinal cord injury patients, whether that'd be newly injured or people who may have had an injury for some time, but they just haven't successfully reintegrated back into society yet.

Really just working with those different spinal cord injury patients to just be a role model, an example, and show them that anything is possible still, and we can still have a purposeful, high-quality life. Like I said, just really trying to show them that if I can do it, I know you can do it as well.

Because a lot of times, it's good for them to actually see someone else in a similar situation as them to actually give them that confidence and that motivation to actually do what they want to do. Or maybe accomplishing what they didn't even know they wanted to do yet.

Another organization that I'm involved with is Whitney/Strong. Whitney/Strong is a nonprofit that attempts to reduce gun violence of all types, whether that'd be street crime, suicidal gun violence, mass shootings, whatever the case may be. It's actually even more relevant with the most recent mass shooting being in Louisville. We all have to do something; nobody can just stand by. We all have to do something to reduce gun violence in our country.

But I also do some of the books for Whitney/Strong as well. So with me being in school for accounting, I'm able to utilize those accounting skills and actually help Whitney/Strong as far as our monthly reconciliations, our budget process, and just the different financial aspects of the organization. That's one of the benefits of working with Whitney/Strong that I've been able to provide, as well as my community involvement within Louisville.

Amato: On top of all that work that you're doing, you are also still completing your master's degree in accounting at the Jenkins MAC Program at N.C. State. I guess you have graduation coming up in May. Tell me about that winding down and then also what's next for you?

Williams: Graduation is quickly approaching. I'm super excited for that. Like you said, currently I'm in the Jenkins MAC Program here at N.C. State. After graduation, I plan to start with the CPA Exam. I'm actually taking the first section, BEC [Business Environment and Concepts], on April 24, and then I plan to take the other three sections over the summer.

After I pass all of those exams – yeah, I got to speak it into existence, got to pass them. After I pass all of the exams, I'll be an audit associate at RSM starting in early October. I'm excited for that and excited to see where that actually leads as well.

Amato: Great. Is that going to be in Raleigh, or is that going to be elsewhere?

Williams: That's going to be in the Raleigh office, so don't have to go too far.

Amato: You've come a long way and, obviously, that's in large part due to your personal commitment. But everyone, I think, has mentors who have helped them along the way. Who are some of those for you?

Williams: Like you said, mentors have definitely helped me along the way. If I was to give a full list, it would take me three days. I'll give you a couple. But as far as mentors in my life, I would say, of course, my mom, my dad, my brothers, my granny, they raised me right. Definitely them as mentors.

Moving to high school, I would say Coach Founder, my wrestling coach. He was a huge mentor for me as well, just keeping me engaged in positive activities when I could've been doing otherwise. Then fast-forward to, I guess after my injury, Pivot to Peace, just the organization as a whole, but specifically Ms. Deborah, Derrick, KJ, all of them, Trinidad Jackson. They helped me with my educational journey thus far, and not even just educational, just my wife as well. They've actually become family.

Then fast-forward to N.C. State, and we actually have Jay Arrington. He's a great mentor. I remember when I reached out to N.C. State, it was nothing but love from him, and he's actually helped me with the program, and I know he'll still be here after the program.

Also Kelly Hardy and Scott Showalter, both of them have been significant in my journey as well. Kelly helping me with RSM and really just a fellowship program as a whole, and then Scott as well. He did the same as far as the fellowship taking a chance on me. They didn't know me, but they heard my story and they took a chance.

They could have chosen anybody to give the fellowship to. Without that fellowship, I honestly would not have attended N.C. State, would't have been able to, wouldn't have been able to afford it. They've been huge as far as my educational journey. Like I said, there's many more. I know that I'm leaving off and I'm sorry, but like I said, I'd be going for three days if I had to name every single one.

Amato: Well, this has been a great conversation. I really appreciate it, Terrell. Is there any message that you'd like to pass on to other accounting students or those planning to become accountants?

Williams: Yeah, I would say that regardless of your background, regardless of your experiences, regardless of where you may come from, you can do exactly what you want. You can do anything that you put your mind to. With accounting, it's a profession that a lot of people don't know about – well, a lot of people with similar backgrounds and similar experiences as me that they don't know about. My goal is really just to bring some awareness that we can get into the accounting profession as well. We can do it, and all we have to do is just try.

Amato: Terrell, thank you very much.

Williams: Thank you, Neil. I appreciate it.