If you didn’t know Randy Nicholson’s (’59) story, you might never suspect that the entrepreneur, benefactor and influential former ACU trustee faced extreme adversity and obstacles from the beginning of his life. Yet those circumstances that were beyond his control shaped the man he became – someone who helped others and lived generously.
At 18 months old, Nicholson and his siblings were placed in Boles Children’s Home in Quinlan, Texas after their parents could no longer care for them. There, he began learning about Christ, generosity, gratitude and the value of working hard. Regular chores at Boles Home taught responsibility and included working in the fields, tending to the animals and milking cows. Nicholson was also active in FFA and worked for Safeway supermarkets as a stocker, sacker and checker.
Nicholson’s college decision was heavily influenced by one of his Boles Home dorm supervisors, Abilene Christian College alumnus Robert Harold “Tex” Williams (’50). As for his major, Nicholson developed an early interest in accounting while working with Claude Covey, who did the accounting for Boles Home, during high school.
Nicholson chose not to accept the free tuition offered to Abilene Christian students who grew up in an orphanage. He felt he had been given much during his time at Boles Home and that it was time for him to start paying his own way. He worked full time at an Abilene Safeway and still managed to graduate in four years with a degree in accounting.
While at ACC, caring mentors and friends continued to shape Nicholson’s faith and character. His friendship with Hal McGlothlin (’58) led to multiple work experiences and partnerships with McGlothlin family businesses such as Radio London, United Network, Bank of Commerce, Locus Homes International, LaJet and even an attempt at forming a new television network. Nicholson also gained experience in the self-serve gasoline business as founder, president, chief operating officer and board member of E-Z Serve, and he also helped pioneer pay-at-the-pump equipment as chair and CEO of AutoGas Systems Inc.
Nicholson remained very active with his alma mater until his death in December 2020 because he felt strongly that a quality Christian education should be affordable and accessible to all students who want to learn in a Christ-centered environment. He served on the ACU Board of Trustees for 29 years. He also chaired the investment committee from its inception in the 1980’s until February 2010. When ACU established a separate entity to handle its endowment – the Abilene Christian Investment Management Company (ACIMCO) – in 2009, Nicholson served as the first chairman of the board.
He also played a large role in the land purchase to expand ACU in 1981 and was one of four individuals who contributed money to establish Student Trading and Research (STAR), a student-managed fund in the College of Business Administration. Nicholson worked closely with the past deans of COBA to help the college equip its graduates to be influential Christians in the business world. Most recently, he was on the advisory board for the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing (NEXT) Lab.
Nicholson’s greatest partnership was with fellow ACC student Barbara Hart (’59), and they married in 1957. The pair were married 59 years until Barbara’s death in January 2017. Those who knew Randy knew how much his wife, daughter Randa (Nicholson ’88) Upp, son-in-law Jeff Upp (’86) and grandson Braden (’17) meant to him.
Nicholson’s presence continues to be felt as he generously gave to others for causes that were dear to his heart. One of the legacies is the Nicholson-Upp Family Endowed Scholarship for the College of Business. “Dad felt compelled to help others, especially those who started from a disadvantaged place in life,” said his daughter, Randa Upp. “He knew the importance of having someone believe in you and being given a chance.” Randa recently told us about her father and the legacy he left behind.
Who inspired him?
Coach Garvin Beauchamp (’41) formed a relationship with Dad during his freshman year at ACC when Dad stayed with him until the new residence hall, Edwards, was ready for students to move in. Later, at the beginning of Dad’s sophomore year, Coach Beauchamp encouraged him to find a new group of friends. This advice changed the path that he was on. Early in Dad’s career, Hal McGlothlin (one of those new friends) encouraged him to sell his accounting practice and come to work for the McGlothlin family business, which placed Dad in a position to have many unique business experiences. Hal treated people with kindness regardless of who they were. This impacted Dad deeply. H.E. Hart, the father of Barbara Hart, inspired him in several ways. Mr. Hart was a man of integrity. He was the spiritual leader of his home and a man with an incredible work ethic. Nick Nicholson, Dad’s cousin who was the head football coach at ACC while he was there, was a wonderful example for Dad in the way that he lived his life, cared for his family and treated others. W.C. “Dub” Orr (’50) and Ray McGlothlin Jr. were two men who inspired him in his approach to business. Dr. Overton Faubus made a huge impact on Dad. He gave Dad advice about building credit which later put him in a position to be able to borrow the money needed to purchase an accounting firm.
What was his favorite ACU memory?
Many of Dad’s favorite memories came from times with friends that spanned six decades of experiences together at ACU. Some of those memories were from the first mixer as a freshman in 1955, Sing Song and socials with Sub-T-16 and Chapel in Sewell Auditorium. Other favorite memories included seeing myself, nieces and nephew, future son-in-law, and grandson attend ACU. He was so proud to see his grandson, Braden, participate in STAR with Dr. Terry Pope and work with Jack Rich and the endowment.
A special memory for Dad was when he, Ray McGlothlin Jr., and Dub Orr were named the College of Business Administration’s Distinguished Business Leaders of the Year in 1996. That honor focused on something very special – three humble, godly men who relied on God and each other.
How did his faith impact his work and personal interactions?
Dad was often heard saying he knew what it was to be at the bottom of the social ladder. He also knew what it was like having everything given to him by people he would most likely never meet. This not only formed a spirit of humility in him, but also created a compassionate and generous heart.
He knew that nothing makes one person better than another person. He treated people the same whether they were a busboy at a restaurant or a powerful politician, a brilliant CEO or a famous celebrity. Dad had three families: his physical family, his spiritual family and his work family. Relationships were very important to him. He cared deeply for people. As Dad looked back on his life, he realized that the times that were hard – when he felt he was facing the greatest adversity – those were the times when God was placing him on a path for blessing. He was an encourager, and he looked for ways to be a part of the blessing for others who were facing adversity.
COBA’s vision is to inspire, equip and connect Christian business and technology professionals to honor God and bless the world. How do you think your dad lived out that vision in his work?
He wanted the quality of education in COBA to be top-notch while also providing practical application and experience. Dad felt that it was very important for professors to develop relationships with their students and for them to provide a godly example in and out of the classroom. He was constantly introducing people to each other. He would host luncheons and other gatherings to introduce people. He strongly believed in networking and relationships. He always wanted time with the students to encourage them that it didn’t matter where they started – what mattered is where they finished. He wanted them to know that their work and determination was important. He was always willing to encourage and mentor others.
What advice do you think Randy would give to current students to prepare them for their future?
- Your relationship with Jesus is the most important thing. Surround yourself with people who will always encourage you in your walk with Christ.
- Foster a spirit of gratitude. No matter what your situation – you are blessed. Focus on your blessings. “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18
- Dedication and hard work go a long way. Don’t expect people to hand things to you. Go out and look for opportunities.
- Remain humble and treat everyone with respect.
- Seek out mentors and listen to their advice. Surround yourself with people who constantly challenge you to be a better person. “The way of the fool seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 12:15 “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end, you will be counted among the wise.” Proverbs 19:20
- Learn from your mistakes and don’t forget to forgive others of their mistakes
- Don’t forget to give back. No matter where you are in your life, you can always give back. You can give your time, your talent and/or your money. You can mentor those who are younger than you, and you can help people connect with each other and build a stronger network of relationships.
- Be content. Find a way to be happy regardless of your circumstances. Remember, looking to others to complete you is always a mistake. Find happiness in your relationship with God.
When Dustin Marshall (’07) graduated from ACU with an undergraduate degree in accounting and a Master in Accountancy in 2008, he wasn’t sure how the work he was going to do would allow him to put his faith into practice in the workplace. Thirteen years later, the answer is clear.
One of the tenets of the College of Business Administration is encouraging students and alumni to see all work as ministry. Marshall, now a CPA and Assurance partner at Ernst & Young LLP, can see now that the size of the firm along with the flexibility he has at the company allows him to do Kingdom work both inside and outside of the office.
“One of the things I really struggled with right out of college was feeling as if what I was doing for a living did not have a direct or significant impact on the world or even my community, so it was hard to feel like I was honoring God or blessing the world,” Marshall said. “After much prayer and self-reflection, it was revealed to me that God gave me the gifts he did for a reason and that there are numerous ways that I am able to honor him and bless others in my day-to-day activities at work.”
Faith is important to Marshall in his day-to-day interactions.
“So much of my work is building relationships,” he said. “There are multiple opportunities to connect with individuals on both a professional and personal level, and though I cannot openly discuss my faith unless directly asked, it is ever-present in every interaction that I have. One of my values is building relationships based on doing the right thing. My faith is the basis for living out that value.”
Marshall understands that his success in the business world is built on interacting with others, whether it be building professional relationships with co-workers and clients or the apprenticeship-like model that is public accounting. Not only did COBA give Marshall the foundation of knowledge to enter the business world, but his time at ACU and in the college helped shape him.
“COBA gave me the solid business foundation to confidently carry out those interactions and helped develop me as a person to do so with compassion, kindness and caring for those I interact within a business setting,” he said. “It is impossible to build up without having a firm foundation, and ACU provided that foundation.”
Marshall advises current students to get plugged in at ACU and build their support system, saying, “Don’t be shy! There are so many opportunities at ACU to get plugged in and involved. Find your spot and allow yourself to grow. Join a fraternity/sorority. Join other clubs on campus. Play every intramural sport possible. I was lucky enough to make friends at ACU that I have been able to rely on heavily after graduation.”
The friends and mentors Marshall gained at ACU have created lasting memories for him.
“I enjoyed every second spent with my fraternity,” Marshall said. “Sing Song was a great experience – not so much Sing Song practice. The long study sessions that were spent in the COBA atrium while taking numerous breaks to talk to friends walking through. Time spent in the Quiet Place. The most specific memory I have is my last semester in the MAcc program when it was difficult to stay motivated and I felt like I couldn’t wait to graduate, only to spend my very last class at ACU sitting in Dr. Perkins’ class listening to him play his guitar and read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to us and wishing that class would never end because I did not want to leave.”
Marshall gives special mention of two professors who greatly impacted him.
“I enjoyed all of the accounting professors but I would have to give specific acknowledgment to Mr. (Bill) Fowler and Dr. (John) Neill,” Marshall said. “Fowler was invaluable in helping us keep everything in perspective and always taking the time to discuss topics outside of accounting. Dr. Neill was a great teacher and his jokes always kept me laughing. I still talk to both of them on a fairly regular basis.”
Marshall says he “could not recommend ACU highly enough” and touts the university as being the perfect size where the opportunities are boundless. ACU became the place where he grew his own faith. He encourages current students to be introspective and active in their spiritual journey.
“Growing in your faith-life is hard after school,” he said. “Reflecting back, I was essentially ‘spoon fed’ faith from the day I was born. I grew up in the church, and I was surrounded by like-minded individuals, which only increased when I stepped on ACU’s campus. At ACU, you have daily Chapel, you pray before class and Bible studies are plentiful. It was a huge adjustment after graduation when I became a lot more responsible for my own faith walk.”
While the adjustment outside of the ACU campus might have been hard, Marshall is living out his faith in the workplace as a quiet ambassador for COBA alumni who “honor God and bless the world.”
“See a need, fill a need.” That’s a phrase used often when talking about leadership, particularly servant leadership. It’s a phrase Chris Clark (’01) has put into practice since graduating from ACU as a management and marketing major.
As the co-owner of TimelyMD, an online telehealth provider focusing on colleges and universities, Clark has searched for ways to serve others while offering help and healing to often marginalized communities. Along the way, he’s continued to show his gratitude to his alma mater saying, “ACU helped us and now we want to give back.”
TimelyMD might never have been born were it not for ACU. Founded by alumni Clark, Luke Hejl (’01) and Dr. Alan Dennington (’01), the university not only brought the three partners together but offered the opportunity to see their idea launched. The company’s seed investors were all alumni. ACU was the first client, signing a contract for what is now known as “Wildcat Care” before the company’s operational launch and encouraging other institutions to engage the company’s services.
Now TimelyMD serves almost 100 institutions and half a million students. Not only has its growth been exponential, but what started as a medical-only company five years ago has pivoted to serve students in a broader way, adding mental and behavioral health services.
In the beginning, behavioral health wasn’t even on the partners’ radar, Clark said. However, when they started canvassing colleges, the message from higher education institutions was clear: “It’s great that you can treat pink eye, but our real needs are on the behavioral health side.”
Pre-pandemic, 60 percent of TimelyMD visits dealt with medical issues and fewer than 40 percent involved behavioral health. When the pandemic hit, the numbers were reversed; two-thirds of the visits now involve behavioral or mental health and one-third are medical.
Stressors brought on by the pandemic served to accelerate the business’s growth. As a former pharmaceutical sales rep, Clark understood how long it could take to build relationships with potential clients. Pre-pandemic, the sales cycle with colleges was generally 12 to 36 months before a decision would be made to engage the company’s services.
When COVID-19 hit, many students were sent home as institutions turned to online learning. As students returned to their home states, colleges and universities that wanted to continue offering health services faced a dilemma: How would they provide care in a state in which their campus providers might not be licensed?
At the same time, students’ anxiety levels increased, compounded by social isolation and loneliness, as they worried about their academic performance and their future. As many institutions remained closed for the remainder of the academic year in 2020 and into 2021, telehealth came into the spotlight.
TimelyMD was ready for the challenge and the much-shortened sales cycle. The company had already been working on a national infrastructure plan for expansion. The blueprint was in place and allowed the company to rapidly deliver short-term, customized solutions for institutions such as Duke and Johns Hopkins.
Although TimelyMD was founded initially to fill a gap in the higher education healthcare system, Clark says his fulfillment and inspiration comes in seeing how the lives of students are transformed.
“People are so passionate about what we are doing,” he said. “I realize we truly may be saving a life, intervening in crises or changing the world in a positive way. We’re working with some institutions with a very high percentage of first-generation college students who aren’t accustomed to the level of care we’re providing, especially on the mental health side. It’s definitely what makes me wake up in the morning, knowing we are truly improving the health of students.”
As TimelyMD continues to grow, Clark sees an opportunity to reach marginalized communities in a way virtual health has not been able to do before. “When I was in school, behavioral health was swept under the rug; today we are dealing with it in a different way,” he said. It’s been especially fulfilling to see the mental health services embraced by students and institutions alike, he said.
The lessons Clark learned on the ACU campus have equipped him for marrying his academic knowledge with his faith as he has grown his business.
“In COBA, specifically, learning how to lead and learning from Christian leaders is probably what equipped me to help lead TimelyMD today,” Clark said. “The presentations we had to give, the debates, position papers and learning to stand behind our position were all really helpful.”
He especially appreciates the lessons he learned at COBA’s Leadership Summit.
“Leadership Summit was really about servant leadership,” he said. “I can’t tell you the content that was shared, but what I do remember is that faith was important to the business leaders who came in. They talked about how they incorporated their faith into their daily lives in leading an organization and it was really powerful for me. I don’t do a perfect job of that but I try to lead in that way, too. While I won’t shove it down anyone’s throat, for people to know that my faith is important to me, that it does guide me in what I do and how I do it, is important.”
Aside from meeting his wife, Merry (Lacy) Clark (‘00), his favorite memories from his time at ACU involve the student opportunities offered to him. Clark encourages current students to look at their college experience holistically.
“It’s much more than going to class and group projects,” he said. “It’s things like participating in committees, going to Leadership Summit, going to professors’ homes for meals. It was an amazing experience to be able to do that. Outside of class, I would say it’s getting as involved as you can. I was involved with SGA serving as the freshman and sophomore class president. Whatever it may be, Sing Song, Wildcat Week, etc., it’s important to find all the different ways to build community.”
Judith Barajas (’16) knew working and living abroad was something she wanted to do eventually after she traveled to Oxford with COBA as a student in the spring of 2014. She just didn’t expect to be back in England so soon.
Barajas, a marketing major with a minor in international business, became very involved at ACU through Ko Jo Kai and the ACU chapter of the American Marketing Association. She traveled abroad again in 2016 when she led a team of 10 students on a mission trip to Honduras with Mission Lazarus as an officer for the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization.
After graduation, Barajas moved to Dallas, Texas, and accepted a job as an account manager at PFSweb, an eCommerce fulfillment provider. During her three years with the company, she worked with multiple accounts that helped her learn about different business models. As she grew professionally, she knew she wanted to expand that knowledge. So, in the summer of 2019, she took a leap of faith, quit her job and moved to Barcelona, Spain, thanks to her love of different cultures and travel.
Barajas continued her education in Barcelona, receiving her master’s in international business from EAE Business School in the summer of 2020. With the uncertainty of world markets during the pandemic, it became almost impossible to find work abroad. However, her experience with PFS in Dallas had gone so well that the company reached out to her after graduation and offered her a job in its new office in the UK. Barajas moved to London in October 2020 and is contracted to work there for three years.
While the last few years have been a roller coaster, Barajas is extremely grateful for where she is right now and looks forward to more adventures ahead, noting that “God’s timing is simply the best. It was definitely a challenge, but I had faith it was the best time of my life to make such a decision. I am extremely happy to have had a great experience and learned so much about business in other countries, not only through school but also through my classmates. My graduate school class represented 28 nationalities!”
It is not lost on Barajas that she is living in a place where she once studied as an ACU student. “The craziest thing is that after I studied abroad in Oxford, I promised myself to move back one way or another. Oxford will always be in my heart. Little did I know it would happen this soon.”
Barajas continues to stay in touch with professors like Dr. Monty Lynn and Dr. Ryan Jessup to offer ways she can help educate and mentor COBA students who hope to live out their own adventures.
When Gbemi (pronounced Bemi/Bimi) Adebesin (’17) came to ACU, she was no ordinary freshman. Gbemi came to ACU as an international student from Nigeria at the tender age of 15. Prior to that, she had spent 6 years in boarding school so the adjustment to a new place, a new culture, and a new style of learning was a shock. Gbemi began her academic career as a biochemistry pre-med major but in her sophomore year, she says she gained more insight and clarity into her personality and purpose and changed her major to accounting graduating in 2017 with a Masters in Accountancy.
Being such a young college student meant that ACU played a huge part in shaping Gbemi and her future as an adult. She said, “I remember being so super shy when I arrived and having a lot of doubts in my faith and career; but my time and experiences at ACU definitely helped me broaden my horizon and gain more perspective, direction, and confidence. I can’t overemphasize how much the knowledge, culture, and skills I gained from ACU and COBA continues to be so relevant and important to me to date.”
Part of the vision, mission, and values that COBA hopes to instill in students is “Excellence and Impact” which means upholding high moral and professional standards of excellence for faculty, staff, students, and alumni, calling each person to a life of service and leadership that glorifies God and transforms communities and society. Gbemi is a shining example of that excellence. She obtained her CPA (Certified Public Accountant) in 2018 and her CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner) in 2020, receiving the notable honor of Top Achiever Africa Award from the ACFE (Association of Certified Fraud Examiners) South Africa chapter for having the highest overall score in Africa. Adebesin recognizes how special receiving the honor is saying, “It feels amazing and that’s partly because I had never expected to receive such an award. The exam is designed such that you never really know your scores, you only know if you pass or not, so I didn’t think such an award existed. Taking the exam was out of my deep interest and passion for the field, so to have that reflected by the award is truly special.”
Gbemi is currently working as an external auditor with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Nigeria but gained experience in the accounting field working at Eide Bailly in Abilene for a year before moving back home and enrolling in a one-year nation-building program during which she joined PwC as an auditor. Like most new graduates, Gbemi found the transition from being a student working full time to be a bit jarring. “Having spent the majority of my life at school with no internships in my career field, I felt like a fish out of water every day for the first few months. I really loved and enjoyed school so transitioning from that secure ‘bubble’ environment was a big step out of my comfort zone and a paradigm shift. Let’s just say reality hit me.” Along with the adjustment to work, there have been other challenges she has faced. One of those challenges is something that’s felt by many but rarely discussed – Imposter Syndrome. She said, “I feel the challenge I struggled with the most and for the longest time is Imposter Syndrome, which has held me back in some ways; but I’m learning to just show up with my best foot forward and leave the rest. The other notable challenge I experience, being in the working world now, is finding ways to integrate all facets of my life with my work and ensuring my faith and relationships don’t suffer.”
Adebesin’s faith is integral in her career and her relationships with colleagues and clients. “My faith plays a huge role in my work and is what keeps me going. Apart from cultivating a greater sense of meaning in my work, it has shaped and improved my values, work ethic, and relationships with people like my colleagues, clients, etc. It drives me to continually strive to be better in everything I do and contribute as much as I can to a better world and environment. Since I spend most of my time at work, work is one major way I’m able to express and fulfill my faith through leading by example and letting my life and work tell the story of my faith and trust in God.”
The people and places of ACU were formative for Gbemi in many ways. Some of her favorite memories at ACU are those “little moments like walking across campus, even though sometimes it’s while rushing to class, hearing the chapel bells ringing, being in class, the activities and events (homecoming with the fireworks, tailgates with amazing food and activities, international student events, theater, etc.), the Bean and campus center food, snow days, chapel worship, and most importantly the time I got to spend with all the wonderful people I met at ACU.”
Adebesin said that some of her best memories come from her time at McDonald dorm in the spring of 2013 saying, “I was so shy back then, but I still remember how welcoming everyone I met there was.” She cherishes the friendship of the people she encountered while working at the ACU Foundation and Advancement office, as a tutor in the University Access Programs, and at Residence Life, who were so kind to her, saying how much she deeply appreciated them. She is also thankful for the kindness and support she received from her academic advisors, the ACU Career Center, and Student Financial Services.
Gbemi also has high praise for her former professors, saying, “Wow, I love a lot of different professors for different reasons and they all left memorable impressions on me in various ways. They were so admirable, kind, patient, and always willing to help, even beyond the classroom, which really enhanced my ACU experience. I guess I can use this as a form of a shout-out to all my professors from COBA (in no particular order): Professors Perkins, Vardiman, Stewart, Fowler, Little, Clements, Stovall, Neill, Wertheim, Brister, Burton, Easter, Phillips, and the Popes. I didn’t have Professors Marquardt and Tippens for class, but they were also really caring on other occasions. There were also quite a number outside of COBA too that I appreciate. For example, I’m always grateful for the Powells, who took my siblings and me in as part of their family, Professor David Merrell, who always cared for me and my sister, and Professor John Willis who was such a loving person. I know I mentioned many names and there are still more I could mention. It was truly a blessing having these wonderful and brilliant professors and I just want them to know that I always remember and appreciate them beyond words, and I can still mention a thing or two that I learned from each of them that stuck with me.”
As the saying goes, “hindsight is 20/20”. Gbemi’s advice for freshmen comes from looking back on what she experienced and learned while at ACU. “I’d say ‘be water’ and be ready to step out of your comfort zone. Get involved in campus activities and keep up with the meaningful relationships you form but obviously not to the detriment of studying and classes. The professors and students are so helpful and there are numerous resources and tools on the ACU campus, so be open to asking around and being vocal about your needs. One of the most important things for incoming COBA freshmen is to make use of the Career Center early.”
As business students look to their future careers, she encourages them to take advantage of all that the ACU Career Center and COBA’s Professional Development program have to offer. “I’d advise them to be curious, open-minded, and continue to challenge themselves in as many ways as possible. They should try to get practical experience and exposure through networking, jobs, and internship opportunities. An internship was something I didn’t experience and now know its value in hindsight. The career center is a great resource to take advantage of for this. Also, this is a great time to start taking a holistic view of their life and being mindful to have a clear life vision for their future.”
Adebesin knows that attending college in a foreign country is a challenge for many international students. She advises international students to “be open because most people at ACU are always ready and willing to help. The international student community has many wonderful people as well as a lot of activities such as international student dinner, ethnos, Hispanic Unidos, etc. I always had an amazing time at these events and would encourage every international student to participate. In light of this, I would like to give a special shout-out to Lucy Dawson, Laura Blake, Daniel Garcia, Susan and Art Green, and the other international student office staff who made ACU feel like home.” Gbemi was also enrolled in the Friendship Family Program where she met Karen Douglas, a counselor at ACU. “Karen and her family have been such a blessing in my life while at ACU and after in more ways than I can thank her for. I’m very thankful and blessed to have met someone so loving and amazing and to have another home and family away from home.”
Gbemi Adebesin truly is living out the vision of the college to inspire, equip and connect Christian business and technology professionals to honor God and bless the world as she lives out her calling in her vocation and in her community. “My time at ACU has been so memorable, even the littlest experiences, so I experience a lot of nostalgia when I look back. I will forever feel blessed to have been a part of that community and to have these spectacular people in my memories, including those not mentioned here.” Congratulations to Gbemi on the honor received – we can’t wait to see the ways she changes the world.
When Sarah (Hailey) Bacon (‘13) graduated with an undergraduate degree in accounting and then with a MAcc degree in 2015, she likely did not imagine that she would become the Vice President, Accounting Officer at First Financial Bankshares, Inc. at such a young age. Sarah’s passion for numbers, her diverse background in accounting, and the pull of being close to family all had a hand in shaping her future career path.
During her time at ACU, she worked in the COBA Dean’s office as a student employee and also held a job as a controller for a local insurance agency. Bacon was able to apply many of the principles she was learning in both her undergraduate and graduate classes during this time. She also gained a firm understanding of the business world which she says helped tremendously at her first post-graduation job in public accounting as an auditor at a firm in Dallas. “I could relate to clients having been one myself. Ultimately, the combination of industry and audit experience lead me to my current position with First Financial.”
In early 2018, Sarah and her husband Michael (’12) decided they wanted to move back to Abilene to be closer to family. It didn’t take long for her Abilene connections to notify various people at First Financial that the Bacons were moving back to town. One morning, Sarah received a call from the previous CFO of First Financial Bankshares and, after interviewing in person a week later, they created a position for Sarah. “I was very excited because I had dreamed of working there since I first went to college.”
As most new grads find out, learning to navigate the world of working young adulthood can be hard. Sarah said, “Learning to balance work and life has always been a struggle for me. I’ve learned that there is a balance, however. That balance is different for everyone and is ever-evolving throughout the different stages of life. My best advice to anyone, including myself, is to be patient with yourself.” One of her favorite take-aways from ACU was a quote that came from Dr. Gary McCaleb to “be a life-long learner”. “This is so prevalent in today’s world where things are constantly changing and evolving at an unprecedented pace. I must always strive to be better and more knowledgeable in my field and in general. My time at ACU provided me the tools and the drive to be a life-long learner.”
Bacon said that one of the biggest surprises she’s encountered since leaving ACU is that she’s found ACU alums everywhere she has gone. “There have been ACU alumni at every company I’ve worked for, lots of networking events and several places that I’ve traveled. It’s so fun to reminisce about common professors, social clubs and Sing Song.”
COBA believes in empowering students and alumni to weave their faith into their vocation. This is something that truly resonated with Sarah as a student and now in her current position. “My faith has impacted my work most from the standpoint that I have long-believed accounting has been my calling. I try to use Christian beliefs and strong morals in everything I do, and every decision I make. I had a strong faith in Christ before I was a part of COBA, but learning in a Christian environment only helped strengthen that faith.”
Along with growing deeper in her faith, some of Sarah’s favorite memories were made at ACU; most importantly meeting her husband, Michael Bacon, in the Fall of 2014 in Dr. Paul Lakey’s communication class while they were both in graduate school and then marrying him in the Chapel on the Hill on ACU’s campus in 2016. To top off the magical day, the ceremony was conducted by Sarah’s dad, Joe Hailey (’69). Sarah also has a special place in her heart for the ACU tradition of singing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”. She said, “I can’t narrow down one specific time that is my favorite, but the feeling of unity and common love felt when this song is sung at ACU is something that will stick with me forever. It’s the kind of feeling that gives me chills and brings a smile to my face. I associate this song with ACU.”
During her time at ACU, Sarah enjoyed being a COBA Dean’s office student employee. “I had the opportunity to get to know several professors and back-office associates better than most. I learned how down to earth they are and how much they really care. Dr. Jonathan Stewart is one of my favorite professors. His podcasts were a big deal before podcasts were a big deal and made learning fun. I loved how several COBA professors integrated fun, out-of-the-box ways of learning. Dr. Bill Fowler’s audit stories always made me laugh.”
Sarah encourages students, especially freshmen, to spend time talking to their professors. “Invest not only in your studies but in your relationships with the people around you. The content of studies is always evolving but your connections will only go away if you let them. Building a network of professionals and fellow students can be more valuable than you could imagine.”
Bacon also has some advice for current accounting students preparing for their future. “I suggest current accounting students evaluate early on if they plan to sit for the CPA exam. Adjust your class schedule so you have the right classes completed in order to take exams while still in school. Take advantage of the resources COBA provides for study materials and take as many exams as possible prior to beginning your career after college. It’s helpful to do this while you’re still in the habit of studying.” And for all COBA students, she suggests, “Participate in the practice job interviews and learn to keep up with current events in your field.”
As part of the vision, mission, and values of the college, COBA strives to create excellence and impact by upholding high moral and professional standards of excellence for faculty, staff, students and alumni, calling each person to a life of service and leadership that glorifies God and transforms communities and society. Sermons aren’t just lived out from the pulpit. Sometimes, the best sermons are seen at places like banks. Thank you to Sarah Bacon for making the world a better place by living out faith in the workplace.