Following graduation in May and a summer internship in Charlotte, Western Carolina University senior Brennan Burke will have to decide what path to follow next.
When it comes time to make that decision, Brennan will have more options than most because of the fact that she is earning a triple major. Brennan started as a mathematics major with a concentration in actuarial science, but along the way she added finance and accounting to the mix, giving her the trifecta. Not bad for someone who in high school thought she wanted to be a civil engineer.
Brennan, who grew up in Sylva and attended Haywood Christian Academy in Clyde, originally planned to go to the University of Tennessee and pursue civil engineering. But the closer she got to high school graduation, the more she realized that’s not what she wanted. Her mom, Debra Burke, associate dean of WCU’s College of Business, knew all along.
During an open house visit at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, where Brennan’s father, Gary, worked at the time, they saw some really cool displays, her mother said.
“There were exhibitions where they were blowing up concrete and testing stress,” Debra Burke said. “I was just fascinated with it all and she wasn’t interested. I thought, I wonder if she’s really interested in engineering because if I’m interested and she’s not, that’s probably not a good sign.”
Brennan also realized she wasn’t thrilled about going to Tennessee either. “I always felt more nervous than anything,” she said. “I think it really hit me when I was getting ready to graduate, probably April or May. I guess I kept thinking it would be OK, but it just never felt right.
It was also during that time Brennan discovered something that did excite her – statistics. Although she didn’t have a strong background in math, it was something she enjoyed, despite it being the lowest subject on her SAT and ACT scores. Her mom put her in contact with John Wagaman, WCU associate professor of mathematics and computer science.
“We met in person talked about my SAT math scores,” Burke said. “He was part of the reason why I came here because he told me about the actuarial science program and what that entails. He was very informative and has been for over four years now (as her adviser). I won’t forget Dr. Wagaman.”
So Brennan shifted gears and decided to attend WCU and pursue a mathematics degree. As an unexpected bonus, Burke had taken several advanced placement courses in high school, as well as some online classes at Southwestern Community College, that transferred to WCU where she entered one hour shy of being a sophomore.
Halfway through her sophomore year, Brennan decided to add finance as a minor and graduate early. But after taking an accounting class to satisfy her finance minor, she decided she wasn’t ready to graduate early, so she added accounting to become a double-major. Then, after realizing she was only two classes way from having a finance degree, she opted to do all three.
As if the course load of three majors wasn’t enough, Brennan is equally busy outside of the classroom, seeking to further her knowledge in her areas of interest. Brennan is a member of the Finance Club and Beta Alpha Psi, an accounting honors society. She tutors and, in the fall semester, she helped start the Fem in STEM club, which is composed of female students who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
"At Western, nothing has just been checking a box. I’ve had that connection with my professors and I’ve just been able to get so much out of my education. I haven’t been a number."
Brennan participated in undergraduate research with Marco Lam, associate professor of finance, during the summer before her junior year in which she entered financial budgets of 40 counties in North Carolina from 2004 to 2016 to help understand the financial crisis of 2008. The work was presented at the American Accounting Association in the faculty/student track in National Harbor, Maryland.
Brennan attended “Accounting Is Big Data: A How-to Workship” last spring because she is intrigued with the current shift towards analytics and big data. “Companies are shifting toward ‘how can we use this?’ ” she said. “How can we utilize this information to help us? I’ve just really been interested in that.”
Earlier this year, Brennan interviewed and was accepted to attend three accounting leadership conferences. After graduation, she will intern at Elliott Davis, an accounting firm in Charlotte.
“I’m really excited because it’s interesting to me as a math major who’s interested in analytics and how it’s affecting things, as well as an accounting major whose potential field is affected by this,” Burke said. “Part of the reason I selected this internship was because they allow me to work in their advisory department. A lot of firms have interns that work on taxes or audits. This one is really cool to me because I’m more interested in advisory consulting because I think that’s where the future is going.”
And Burke still finds time to squeeze in some yoga and attend Reformed University Fellowship, a campus ministry.
“Brennan is always positive and well-organized,” said Hollye Moss, formerly interim dean of the College of Business. “She takes advantage of small gaps in her schedule to study or prep for a class. She is an engaged student who is strategic when it comes to taking advantages of opportunities beyond the classroom, such as internships, conferences, and resume-building extracurricular activities.”
While Debra will undoubtedly be one proud mom when her daughter walks across the stage at graduation in May, she credits WCU’s faculty for getting Brennan to that point.
“They prove themselves over and over again,” Burke said. “I have nothing but praise for that math department. They are a bunch of hard-working, smart people who engage with their students, who do things with their students.”
And Brennan leaves knowing unquestionably that WCU was the place for her.
“The experiences that I’ve had are so much, in addition to my education,” she said. “I’ve built relationships. At Western, nothing has just been checking a box. I’ve had that connection with my professors and I’ve just been able to get so much out of my education. I haven’t been a number."
“I’ve just really learned to cherish my education and the opportunity to learn. I’ve had such an incredible opportunity here, and such an incredible education. I think it’s really shaped my outlook on how gracious I am to have had this opportunity to come here to learn that so many people don’t have.”