During Bailey Popovski’s term as president of Beta Alpha Psi, one idea came up often in her conversations with faculty advisor Rose Hu: Be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
COVID-19 has certainly put that notion to the test.
“Who knew life would take us up on the challenge in this way, but this experience has prepared us for the unexpected,” says Popovski, BS ’20, MS ’21. “At first, the transition was tough for everyone—it came fast, and we really only had spring break to learn how to adapt. I give our professors a lot of credit for being able to continue bringing a valuable experience to their students.”
At this point, it goes without saying that the pandemic has upended daily life for everyone. But the past several months have also demonstrated, in countless ways, the resilience of our alumni, students and faculty in the School of Management’s Accounting and Law Department.
When cities went into lockdown last spring, organizational leaders got to work, shifting operations to keep afloat, serve their clients and help their community. Closer to campus, faculty moved their courses online, and students adjusted to studying and collaborating on projects from behind a screen.
Before the pandemic hit, Popovski had secured an internship with EY and tutored in the Undergraduate Learning and Community Center, on top of her leadership role in Beta Alpha Psi, an international honor organization for financial information students and professionals. Once UB announced the shift to distance learning in March, she and the e-board spent spring break devising ways to deliver value to Beta Alpha Psi members virtually. Over the summer, in recognition of those efforts, the chapter was designated a Superior Chapter by the national organization.
“There were a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of things didn’t go as planned, but having all of our dedication recognized was a great feeling,” Popovski says. “We all felt excited to represent our school and the accounting program.”
As for her internship, EY shifted it into a virtual experience with three components: training, client service and a capstone project. Popovski also had the opportunity to earn an EY Analytics certification, enhancing her skills in such tools as pivot tables, Alteryx, Apache Hadoop and SQL.
The experience went so well that EY offered Popovski a full-time role in its assurance practice after she earns her master’s degree this May.
“My internship was one of the coolest experiences I have gotten to be a part of,” Popovski says. “Everything I learned at EY will help me in my career. Beyond the technical aspects, I have a better understanding of how to work with clients in a virtual world—how to ask the right questions to get the most out of calls and meetings, and how to be more effective and efficient with projects.”
For accounting faculty, converting a course to a virtual platform means much more than mastering Zoom.
Last spring, Michael Dambra—who recently earned tenure as an associate professor of accounting and law—was teaching in the MBA core and moved his entire seven-week class online. In just over a week, he familiarized himself with technology like Panopto and Respondus, and considered how to provide both engagement and flexibility through synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Plus, he tried to infuse a little fun, leaving "Easter eggs" for students to find in his recorded lectures, like “Tiger King” references or comments about another professor on the whiteboard.
This fall, he taught in person for a small class of accounting PhD students, which easily allowed for social distancing in a large classroom.
“An unexpected benefit of remote teaching is the flexibility it provides for unforeseen events that may prohibit in-person instruction,” Dambra says. “In the past, I had to cancel classes for weather issues or flight delays. Now, I can easily convert an expected in-person class to a virtual class or meet virtually with students to discuss their progress.”
For faculty researchers, our digital world allows them to share insights with others worldwide seamlessly. During the pandemic, Dambra has presented his research virtually at several universities, including the London School of Economics and Australian National University. In one session, he discussed how recent disclosure changes from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board affect local governments. In another, Dambra presented research showing how the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies influence firm disclosure decisions.
“While some of these visits would have occurred in person pre-COVID, the international presentations are much more convenient and feasible online,” he says. “There is no jet lag or travel time, and we can present our research to a broader audience.”
CPA firms had to work quickly to manage the crisis, too.
Locally, Tronconi Segarra & Associates LLP created a COVID-19 response team to field clients’ questions and help them understand federal legislation and relief programs. Co-led by partner Thomas Mazurek, BS ’98, the team published an array of online resources and hosted weekly webinars that swelled to more than 300 participants.
“From the beginning, we knew this wasn’t going to be like a three-day Buffalo snowstorm, where things quickly returned to normal,” says Mark A. Tronconi, BS ’82, MBA ’85, another partner. “We hoped that by helping businesses understand their options, they would be able to make the best decisions possible to remain viable through and after the pandemic. This became larger than helping our clients—it became about helping a substantial part of the Western New York economy and community.”
To complicate matters further, the pandemic erupted just as income tax filing season was ramping up. For weeks, firms waited to see if federal and state filing deadlines would be extended. And, when the deadline finally moved to July 15, tax professionals raced to meet it.
“Having that extra time to work with clients on getting their information to us and complete their returns was a huge help,” says Andrew Moon, BS ’06, principal, tax/business valuation services at Tronconi Segarra & Associates LLP. “Some of the benefits in the relief packages affected our clients’ tax returns, which created an extra level of complexity that required us to learn the new laws extremely quickly and analyze how they applied to our clients.”
At Moon’s firm, staff swiftly became experts in specific aspects of the legislation, and then hosted webinars and trained their colleagues—a practice that’s indicative of the resourcefulness we’ve all needed to get through the pandemic.
“Persevering through all we have been through and helping our clients was only possible by learning to rely on and trust one another,” Tronconi says. “We had to trust that each of us would do the right things, deliver what we promise to our clients and keep one another safe.”