By Meg Killian, PICPA's Vice President of Member Relations
If you think studying for the CPA Exam is hard, try doing it in sub-Saharan Africa. Karen Purkey, a recent CPA Exam scholarship
winner, is doing just that. Upon graduation from Moravian College, Karen decided to begin her career in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite the obvious logistical challenges of taking the exam, she is committed to becoming a CPA.
What is your age and where did you grow up?
I am 24, and I spent my whole life before Congo in the rural farmlands of Pennsylvania, outside of Allentown.
Did you always want to be a CPA?
No, most of my life I didn’t even know what a CPA was. I didn’t even consider a career in accounting until my junior year of college.
Why Democratic Republic of Congo? Did you set out to relocate there specifically or is that where you ended up because of your job?
I never dreamed of living or working in Africa. During my senior year of college, I heard about Samaritan’s Purse accounting internship program, and thought it would be cool to spend five months experiencing another part of the world before I settled down into a “normal” accounting job in the U.S. They offered me an internship in the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite the fact that I didn’t speak any French. It was a huge adjustment for me at first, but within a couple months I grew to love the country, the people, and the team I was working with. I knew I didn’t want to leave. When my manager decided he wanted to move back to the U.S. that opened up the opportunity for me to take his job and continue working in DRC.
What kind of organization is Samaritan’s Purse?
Samaritan’s Purse is a Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO) that does emergency disaster relief all over the world, with the mission of meeting the physical and spiritual needs of the people who are suffering most. Growing up I was familiar with Samaritan’s Purse and the work that they did, and was involved in packing shoeboxes each year for one of their most well-known projects: Operation Christmas Child. When I heard they had an international internship in accounting, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to use my skills and abilities to serve an organization that I knew was doing a lot of good in the world.
Have you taken any parts of the CPA Exam?
Yes. This past August I took (and passed!) the FAR section of the exam. I am currently studying to take the REG section the next time I go home.
How did you manage the logistics of studying and then actually traveling to Pennsylvania to take the exam?
Studying here in DRC is really hard! But I’m sure it is for anyone who works a full-time job while also studying for the exam. I think the key for me is routine and discipline. Though it seems NGO work never ends, and we often work nights and weekends, I make a point of stopping at 4:30 each day and going back to the house to study for an hour or two. I know that I won’t be able to focus as well later in the evening.
In order to take the exam, I have to plan my vacation around it. I traveled home to Pennsylvania, took a few days to get over jet lag, and then spent a whole week before the exam getting up early and going to the library so that I could have full days of studying without distractions. I took the exam, and then had about one more week at home with my family to just relax.
Do you think you’ll continue to work in the nonprofit world?
I’ve learned that life is always full of twists, turns, and new opportunities, so it is hard to say where I’ll be even one year from now. But as long as I practice accounting, I always want to know that the work I am doing is going toward a good and meaningful purpose. So, it seems likely that I’ll continue to work in the nonprofit sector, whether internationally or in the USA.
What is your biggest motivation to become a CPA?
One motivation is that I love to learn and I enjoy the challenge of studying for the CPA Exam. Secondly, and probably a better reason, is that I know that becoming a CPA can open many more doors of opportunity for me. In the U.S. it is obviously a highly valued title, and even overseas it is well recognized. If I continue to work internationally in relief and missions work, where the knowledge of a CPA is not always very applicable, just having that title will add credibility to my work and my organization.
What do you do for fun while living in Congo? How has your lifestyle changed?
Living in Congo is very different from life in the U.S. There are no malls, movie theatres, parks, or anything recreational, really. Once you get outside of town, Congo is a beautiful country with exotic forests and rolling green hills. Hiking or taking motorcycles out is always a highlight, but you constantly have to be aware of the security situation.
Most of the time we are pretty limited to our compound, so watching movies, playing board games, reading, and cooking are common free-time activities. I’ve learned to be creative and to appreciate the little things—such as when the power stays on long enough to freeze the milk so that we can make some form of ice cream! Those are the best days.
Any other insights, life lessons, advice you’d like to share?
I think one thing I have learned from my experience is to not limit myself to my own ideas of what my life should be like. While in school, I imagined that after graduating with my degree in accounting I would get a good job, maybe working for one of the Big 4, and I’d wear suits and have my own cubicle and be a sophisticated career woman climbing the corporate ladder. Now I wear jeans and flip-flops to work, or a traditional Congolese dress, and I attend business meetings in a conglomeration of three different languages, and sometimes a chicken or a cat wanders into my concrete-floored office that I share with three other people. Many days I sit in my office and work on Excel spreadsheets and do bank reconciliations and expense coding, but other days I visit beneficiary gardens and taste carrots pulled straight from the earth, or learn how to fly an airplane, or teach our new cook how to make American pizza. Though it is not what I once thought my dream job would look like, this has become my dream job. I wouldn’t trade it for the whole corporate world. So my advice is dream big, but be open and available to a life even bigger than your dreams.
What are you most excited about in the future?
The past two years have been pretty crazy, in the sense that I have had opportunities, adventures, and responsibilities way beyond what I ever could have imagined. So in looking to the future, I guess I am just excited to see where God leads me next and what opportunities he will give me to use my abilities to make a small difference in the life of an individual, a community, or even a world. J Learn more about taking the CPA Exam and getting your CPA license in Pennsylvania. >