The notion of becoming a CPA never even crossed my mind as a child. When I was 3 years old, my father passed away. My life was instantly transformed. In the face of this sudden loss, my mother realized that pursuing opportunities would require a new path.

When I was 8 years old, we left everything behind and migrated from Colombia to the United States. I couldn’t fully comprehend why our lives had been uprooted so dramatically; it took time for me to grasp the true value of the sacrifices made. The culture shock was a stark reality, and in our new neighborhood, survival itself sometimes felt like a constant battle. But my mother made it abundantly clear that we were seeking something greater. It was her expectation that my sisters and I would graduate college and forge successful careers. This was the key to unlocking a brighter future. I channeled all my energy into becoming a diligent and accomplished student. As a result, at age 11, I was recruited into an amazing program called Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF).

During my first year in HEAF, I found myself immersed in an incredible program called Summer Quest. The program aimed to foster entrepreneurial and leadership skills. It involved crafting a business plan for a restaurant, covering every aspect from budgeting and menu creation to choosing the ideal location. At the end of the project, we presented our business plan to banking executives at the prestigious 7 World Trade Center. This was my first exposure to the corporate world, and I was captivated by the grandeur of the environment. Suitably inspired, and encouraged by my mother’s unwavering support, I set my sights on a future in law. I selected a high school with a program that focused on law and public service. However, during my junior year, my teacher posed a question I hadn’t considered: what type of law did I envision myself pursuing? I explored options and realized that the law was not my calling after all. My mother suggested accounting; my uncle had found success as an accountant in Colombia, and she saw it as a promising career. As many people do, she correlated my performance in math with an inherent aptitude for accounting.

With a clear goal in sight, I embarked on my journey at Baruch College. The first year was challenging. I realized that there were gaps in my education that I had to fill quickly. Balancing work and classes, I spent countless hours at the library. My hard work paid off: After my sophomore year, I was accepted into the Zicklin School of Business. Throughout my college years, I had great experiences, including an amazing year studying abroad in Paris. I also had the opportunity to expand my knowledge, and I landed an internship at a local accounting firm.

The first day of that internship remains etched in my memory, and I remember it with gratitude. In an era of paper files, my manager handed me a folder and tasked me with completing a “small” return. With a few basics, she urged me to complete what I could. In hindsight, that experience taught invaluable lessons. First, I discovered that I feared needing help, as I dreaded exposing what seemed like a lack of common knowledge. Consumed by a desire for perfectionism and a lot of self-doubt, I was oblivious to the fact that this internal struggle had a name: impostor syndrome. Second, despite wrestling with those emotions, I managed to do the work. Gradually, my knowledge and experience grew. As graduation approached, the firm offered me a full-time position. The offer provided me with a sense of security and proof that I was on my way; I proudly accepted.

Within a small firm of approximately 20 people, I had the opportunity to participate in various facets of the profession. The experience exposed me to bookkeeping, projections, tax, financials, audits, and more. To me, accounting is a delicate balancing act. I found myself blessed with multiple mentors despite the absence of a formal mentoring program. The firm’s management helped in honing my technical skills while encouraging and challenging me. The trust they placed in my ability to deliver was fulfilling, built self-respect, and encouraged me to grow. The learning curve was steep, and I enjoyed the ride.

One person who deeply influenced my professional development was the firm’s managing partner. He helped me develop my strategic thinking, investing time and effort in explaining assignments and reviewing my work with a critical eye. His insightful questions touched on aspects I had not considered or that I had considered without realizing. After several years of working under his guidance, he sponsored me for my CPA license. Countless nights and weekends were devoted to reading, completing practice exams, and reviewing all the material for weeks on end. The exam tested my determination.

Now that I am a CPA, and have worked in various industries and roles, I know that my path continues upward. Every step I have taken, and continue to take, fills me with gratitude.

Clara M. Cohen, CPA, is the chief operating officer of Bedrock Wealth Strategies, Elmsford, N.Y.