Sometimes you fail. You take on a responsibility you’re not ready for, or just don’t apply yourself. Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: You make a grand mistake that you can’t easily remediate and face the consequences with a grim expression, eyes set on the unforgiving road ahead.
But the story doesn’t necessarily end there. With hard work, you can indeed create a better future, overwriting those mistakes and becoming the best version of yourself.
Take Jeff Gnad. He failed out of college not once, but twice, and then found himself working in a nursing home kitchen with a less than lucrative future.
His future, at first, seemed bright. After graduating high school, he studied engineering at Binghamton University – and soon failed out. He then attended SUNY Broome with the same result, and for the same cause: He just wasn’t showing up to class.
“I did well academically, but I had a horrible high school experience. I was smart enough for college, but I was disengaged,” he explained. “I was 18. It was a horrible time for me to go back to school.”
For the next two years, he put his academic aspirations aside and took a job in Willow Point’s kitchen. Eventually, his mother offered him a deal: She would pay for an online class at SUNY Broome, if he was willing to give college another try.
After two years in the kitchen, Jeff was more than ready to change his life and returned to SUNY Broome in the spring of 2004.
Since then, he has swapped the apron for a suit and tie. Today, he is a certified public accountant (CPA) with a master’s degree and a career he loves as an auditor for one of the healthcare giants in the Southern Tier.
“I’m excited because I’m doing what I want to do. Healthcare is my niche now,” he said. “I like the area and I like that type of work.”
After two strikes, a home run
Jeff Gnad didn’t initially envision a career as an accountant, or necessarily in finance. In fact, he estimates that he may have dabbled in six or seven majors during his college education until he found his calling.
There was the start in engineering at BU, he remembered. During his first stint at Broome, he considered social work. Then, he dabbled in marketing and hotel and restaurant management. He didn’t realize his love for accounting until he took an introductory course.
“After my first accounting class, I realized I was good at it, I didn’t hate it and I definitely could make a career out of it,” he said.
As Professor Patrick O’Bryan explained in his class, the Associate’s degree in accounting essentially trains students for immediate employment as bookkeepers; any further education was optional, and becoming a CPA a long road involving intensive study and a difficult exam. During his studies, Jeff was initially content with a future as a bookkeeper – but his professor noticed his ability, and recommended that he go further.
There’s a saying in the program that only 10 percent of accounting majors will actually become accountants. After his conversation with Professor O’Bryan, Jeff Gnad was determined to give it a try.
He put in the effort, earning honors during his second try at SUNY Broome. When he left in 2007, he had earned two degrees: Accounting and Business Administration, the latter thanks to all those extra courses he took while exploring majors.
“I consider myself much more well-rounded. I know a lot about a lot, thanks to all those extra classes,” he reflected.
Surprisingly, he was able to return to Binghamton University as a full junior, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in management with a finance concentration. During his education at both SUNY Broome and Binghamton University, he balanced life as a full-time student with a full-time job in the Willow Point kitchen.
One trick he learned along the way: He read all of his textbooks during summer and winter breaks, to better accommodate his work schedule during the semester.
“I didn’t have time to do anything else. It whipped me into shape,” he said. “I figured, I had two strikes; let’s not make it three.”
‘A different language’
When you ask most people to define accounting, they often think in terms of mathematics. That’s misleading, Gnad acknowledged. In essence, it’s more like a language that uses math; like all languages, its structure determines the way you think and regard the circumstances around you. And that’s probably why many students find the field so difficult to grasp.
“It’s not easy to get. It’s not English and it’s not even algebra. It’s very much a different language, and it’s tough to describe,” he mused. “You have to learn an entirely new vocabulary pretty much on day one in class.”
But Gnad found the field fascinating and he genuinely enjoyed his time at SUNY Broome. Unlike his time at Binghamton University, classes were small and filled with local residents – often in the same situation, balancing school with work and other obligations. He attended mostly night classes, which mostly drew adult learners – those who come back to college after time away. The adult students tended to be the most engaged, Gnad remembered.
“The atmosphere was more, ‘we are here to learn.’ Teachers feed off an engaged class,” he said. “I don’t remember having a teacher here I didn’t like. … It helped that the teachers here wanted you to do well on an individual level. They knew that they weren’t teaching something easy. They would try their damnedest to get us to learn this.”
While he was still working on his bachelor’s degree, he began working in the field, starting at a local accounting firm doing tax returns. It took a year to earn his CPA license and more jobs followed: as a financial analyst at Lourdes, senior accountant for ACHIEVE, back to Lourdes as a senior financial analyst and later for a firm that does internal auditing for the healthcare company, and – just this August – the new position as an internal auditor for UHS.
Accounting is a career with a wide range of job opportunities; businesses of all kinds, after all, need people who keep their finances in order.
“For me, it’s a lot of puzzles and finding needles in haystacks. I like the challenge,” Gnad explained.
One day, after he retires from a rewarding finance career, he hopes to return to SUNY Broome as an instructor – following the footsteps of the teachers who inspired him to learn all the intricacies of a difficult field, while pushing him to expand his limits.
“Coming back here in the 2004 timeframe, I figured out I could do a lot better than I was. I didn’t burn out because I was excited to learn,” he said. “It kept me excited about coming back.”