Online courses, Malvern residency create valuable experience for finance student

MALVERN, Pa. —  As an undergraduate biochemistry student headed toward a career in pharmacy, Angela Gray never considered a job in accounting or finance. She enrolled in an accounting course only to satisfy a prerequisite for her chosen doctor of pharmacy program. Much to her surprise, she loved numbers even more than molecules, and even considered changing her major. Instead, she finished her biochemistry degree, took two years of required accounting courses, and with only four months of preparation, Gray passed the CPA exam on her first try.

In a twist of fate, Gray took a job as a controller for a pharmaceutical software company in Shreveport, Louisiana. Blending her two interests, she understood both the medical and business operations of the company, eventually moving up the career ladder to become the vice president of accounting. Not wanting to become stagnant, and always looking to learn something new, she decided to sharpen her finance skills.

Gray thought about her options. An MBA seemed too broad, and there weren’t any local universities offering a specialization in finance. That’s when the president of her company suggested she look into Penn State Great Valley’s online master of finance program offered through World Campus. At first she was skeptical: How many students would be in her courses? What if she needed a more thorough explanation of a difficult topic than what a textbook could provide?

She enrolled in the program and was pleasantly surprised. Rather than being in a course filled with hundreds of students, Gray was among an intimate cohort of professionals with diverse backgrounds in banking, geology and even kinesiology. When she had a question, faculty members answered quickly, with a thorough response.

“I was concerned I’d be on my own,” she said. “That’s anything but the case. The professors are fantastic and provide me with personalized instruction and feedback on my exams. If I’m having trouble grasping a concept, they take the time to explain things to me.”

For Gray, what really stood out is the program’s weeklong residency at the Great Valley campus in Malvern. The cohort divided into groups to determine stock valuation for a company — a project they worked on for the week. At the end of the week, each group presented their findings — whether they wanted to sell, buy or hold the stock — to members of the finance faculty.

“The program’s residency is one of the reasons I chose to enroll,” said Gray. “It was intensive, but I loved it. Even though I got to know my classmates online, it was nice to be in the same room with them, and despite our diverse backgrounds, we are pursuing similar goals and learning together. Plus, the valuation project taught me something I can immediately apply to my job.”

“I’m able to have a more strategic role in my company,” she added. “I have learned so much. My background in accounting taught me rules and how to apply them. But finance — to me, that’s more creative. I’m thinking differently. How much should my company invest and in what projects? What is an appropriate return given a particular level of risk? It’s more challenging, but in a good way.”

Halfway through the program, Gray is looking forward to learning more, especially to a mergers and acquisitions course that may play a significant role in her job. It’s been a rewarding experience for her, and changed her feelings about online programs.

“Enrolling in Penn State’s master of finance program is one of the best things I’ve done academically,” she said. “The professors are very interactive and the courses are in-depth. It’s a rigorous program. It’s not easy, but it makes me work harder.”