Back to school: A UNI accounting degree and life-changing career switch at age 44

Back to school: A UNI accounting degree and life-changing career switch at age 44

Anna Flanders /

At 44, Jen Waschek is turning the page on a more than 20-year career and starting a new chapter, this time pursuing a degree in accounting from the University of Northern Iowa.  

“This has been a very humbling experience because I went from being an expert in my field to being a student again and knowing nothing, and that's hard,” she said. “It's extremely difficult, but I think it also is so rewarding and has grown me as a person because I see more and more how it's okay to make mistakes.”

Waschek grew up in Wisconsin in a tiny town called Kendall. As the oldest of three girls, she would often try her hand at teaching her younger siblings what she’d learned in school. This led to her wanting to be a teacher at a young age. Looking back, Waschek said she didn’t know herself well when she went to college the first time around and received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from a university in the Chicago area. 

Waschek spent most of her career in North Carolina teaching math and science, with a focus on eighth-grade students. In the last few years, she began to consider her future through retirement. At about the same time, her parents moved back to Cedar Falls where they’d grown up, and Waschek followed them.

In Iowa, Waschek took some classes through UNI for various teaching endorsements, so it made sense that when she started thinking about going back to school, UNI topped the list. Waschek sat down with Elisabeth Soliz, director of the Office of Professional Distinction, and started brainstorming about what turn her career might take. Given her love of math and her excitement over doing her taxes each year, accounting came to mind as an option. 

Jen Waschek

“The biggest reason I chose UNI was the location, but it was a huge plus to find out the school has such a great accounting program,” she said.

That great accounting program boasts a 100% career placement rate and ranks in the top three schools for CPA pass rates in the country.

Waschek enrolled at UNI in fall 2021. Her first semester was all online, which was helpful to ease her way back into being a student. She plans on completing her bachelor’s in accounting followed by her Master of Accounting.

Of course, Waschek is learning a lot about accounting, but she loves that the business core at UNI is molding her into a well-rounded business professional.

“I love that I'm not just studying accounting,” she said. “I'm studying economics and marketing, management, all those things. As I've taken some other accounting classes, I'm starting to see how those things all fit together.”


Much to her surprise, finding common ground with her classmates has been one of the easier parts of going back to school. 

“Especially the accounting majors have been so great to me,” she said. “They really have reached out to me and included me even though I'm twice their age.”

Waschek has completed three internships while at UNI: a tax internship at Hogan-Hansen, a tax internship at BergenKDV and an audit internship at Carney, Alexander, Marold & Co. Through these experiences, she’s discovered she is most drawn to audit. 

“I definitely am planning to start in public accounting, but maybe someday I might decide I want some kind of managerial role, and without knowing all these things I’m learning from the business core, that would be really tough to do,” she said. 

While Waschek is glad she made the choice to switch careers, part of her wishes she would have come to that decision earlier. She believes taking the occasional course in something outside the teaching field may have helped her get to that decision sooner, and she would recommend others continue taking courses while working for that reason.

“Try a class and see if you like it,” Waschek encouraged. “If you don’t, you haven’t quit your job yet and you at least tried.”

Though it may have come later than she would have liked, Waschek is grateful to have found a passion in accounting and is looking forward to starting her next career.