Hard Work Enables Single Mom Earn Accounting Degree and Launch New Career

Melissa Brown graduated from Montclair State University’s Feliciano School of Business in January 2020 and immediately began work at a global accounting firm as a tax associate, marking the end of a journey that started six years earlier and the beginning of a new life chapter and career.

The degree hanging on the wall is an indelible symbol of her hard work, and she says, represents the support she  received at Montclair State.

“Each time I look at it, I think ‘I did it. I made it,’ but I know there were a lot of people who helped me along the way,” said Brown, who lives in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. “It could have just been a few words – ‘Just keep pushing’ – just small conversations with people, that resonated and helped to keep me going.”

Brown grew up in underserved neighborhoods of New York City, with dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She enrolled in an art and design institute after high school, but became a single mom at 20, and withdrew to work full-time as an office manager.

As her daughter began preparing for college, Brown, then 36, decided to do the same. Her company was restructuring, and her employer suggested she pursue an accounting degree so that she could advance, and recommended Montclair as a place to earn her degree and to take advantage of the organizations tuition reimbursement policy.

In her orientation meeting in 2014, Brown recalls words of caution from an advisor, warning the group that pursuing a degree later in life can be fraught with unexpected challenges.

“She said, ‘Just stick to it and keep pushing forward,’” Brown recalled. “I kept her advice near and dear every day I came to campus.”

Brown began her degree slowly, taking one or two courses a semester. After two years, her  academic advisor  encouraged her to be more aggressive.

“He said, ‘While you have a good GPA, at some point you need to graduate,’” she recalled.

By 2017, with her daughter away at college and her evenings free, Brown stepped on the gas, doubling her class load. But just as she was picking up momentum, she became pregnant and grappled with health complications. Despite her struggle, Brown continued attending classes, determined to finish her degree.

By the time her second daughter was born in March 2018, Brown faced another challenge: her company eliminated her job, meaning she also no longer had tuition support. Struggling to pay her bills and worried she wouldn’t be able to continue, she confessed her fears to Kellen Washington, a coordinator for the school’s Academic Success Programs, who drafted a list of resources to tap into for help with childcare,  supplies and food.

“She said, ‘You’re going to be okay. Montclair State won’t let you down,’ it was the support I needed to go the distance,” Brown said. 

Another professor, Steven Markoff, connected Brown with a scholarship to help her finish her last semester, a resource she hadn’t tapped into previously because she had employer tuition support.

As she developed her resume and cover letter for a job search, Brown was mentored by Professor Jeffrey Warren, who also helped her prepare with mock interviews. Another professor, Leonard Lauricella, steered her to networking opportunities.

“Professor Warren coached me along the way, helping me identify what skills to draw on and how to have a successful interview. I owe a lot of credit to him for that,” she said.

The support wasn’t just from administration, Brown added, “a lot of my peers were very supportive and encouraging.”

Brown said the education she received at Montclair State prepared her well for her new profession.

“I say, whatever you think you’re going to throw at me, have at it. I’ve been through it and I survived,” she said. “There’s one thing Montclair State prepared me for that I value the most is analytical thinking. That’s a very powerful and necessary skill to have in today’s world, to be able to investigate issues, make sound decisions and develop effective solutions.”