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Origins: How it Began

I Use to Think I Was the Only One

Milano’s spontaneous promise to “fix” the problem that Carolyn Callahan had exposed in Montvale—that new doctoral recruits would need peer and mentor support to get over the many hurdles of earning the degree—turned out to be simple, conceptually, to keep.

There were, KPMG determined after several months of outreach and research, just 42 African-American accounting doctoral students in the country. (Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans would be added the following year, after The PhD Project was formally launched to target all three groups.)

It would be relatively easy and affordable to host a meeting for them all in Montvale during summer break. As an added bonus, the national organization of accounting educators, the American Accounting Association, was holding its annual meeting in nearby New York City that summer. It wouldn’t take much more to give the African-American students a bonus rarely available to doctoral students of any background: entrée to the conference, where they could network with not only the field’s leading scholars, but with potential future employers.

KPMG announced formation of the African-American Accounting Doctoral Students Association and invited all 42 to attend its first meeting in Montvale, and the AAA conference. All expenses were to be covered by the KPMG Foundation. Also invited: a score of experienced accounting professors and scholars to meet, inform and mentor the student invitees. It was an offer too good to refuse; 35 of the 42 showed up.

That August 1994 inaugural meeting of what would become The PhD Project Accounting Doctoral Students Association meeting would never have occurred, it was later agreed, had Dr. Callahan not recounted the painfully personal story of her doctoral experience six months earlier. “It would have taken us years to figure out why we were having a high dropout rate,” Milano later mused.

The meeting opened on a series of emotional high notes that echoed the emotional moment six months earlier in the same building, when the late Sandra Shelton had first met other African-American doctoral students. In this pre-Internet, pre-Facebook era, African-American doctoral students were unconnected to each other, and generally unaware of each other’s existence. Most of the 35 attendees thought exactly the same thing upon entering the meeting room: “I can’t believe this. I used to think I was the only one.”

Michael Clement would later say of that moment that he felt like someone who had long been searching for the right congregation to join: “I felt as if I’d found the church that I’d been looking for.”

Networking and mentoring commenced; important information and insights were imparted; lifelong bonds were started. At the meeting’s conclusion, each member of the group affixed their signature to a charter document commemorating the occasion. The charter today hangs on a wall at the KPMG complex in Montvale.

After two days, the group headed en masse to the AAA meeting in New York. Walking into the conference as a group, they spied at the other end of the meeting hall a tall African-American man standing alone. None of them knew him. It was hard to tell who was more startled: the group, upon discovering they had apparently overlooked someone, or the man, whose initial thought was, “What is this about, and why wasn’t I invited to the party?”

The man turned out to be Peter Johnson, a CPA who was teaching accounting without a doctorate in a non-research university in Hawaii. Johnson, attending his first AAA meeting, hadn’t really wanted to pursue a PhD; he felt happily situated. Very quickly, he was invited to join the party, and from that moment was part of the group. Within a short time his new friends were extolling the benefits of academic life that he was missing as a non-doctoral instructor.

By the end of the AAA meeting, Johnson was seriously considering, for the first time, plunging in fully and earning his doctorate. The PhD Project, still not yet fully launched, had just scored its first recruit.

The model for The PhD Project Doctoral Students Association, of which there would eventually be five, had just been designed and tested—though no one fully realized it at the time.

In Memoriam Sandra Shelton