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Former Marine, aspiring CPA on the value of continual learning

Written on Jan 2, 2019

By Jessica Salerno, OSCPA senior content manager

Lee_AtwellSome people learn because they are forced to; others – like Lee Atwell – are on a never-ending journey of self-improvement.

“I want to always continuously learn,” he said. “I want to always keep finding ways through anything that’s out there. I want to keep growing as much as I can.”

Since Atwell left the United States Marine Corps in 1998 to enroll in college, he’s stuck to that growth mindset. He chose accounting as a major because of his appreciation of math and love of talking with others. Atwell attended Wheeling Jesuit University before moving with his family to Columbus to study at The Ohio State University.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2006, he went on to Franklin University to earn his MBA with a concentration in finance in 2008, and his master’s degree in accounting with a concentration in taxation in 2011.

“I actually love accounting and I love the dynamics of it,” Atwell said. “No matter whether it’s a client or it’s a project you’re doing, it always seems like it’s ever-changing and evolving, too.”

He said he always knew he wanted to be a CPA, which is one of the reasons he continued to pursue higher education. Now at Whalen & Company, CPAs, he’s also studying for the CPA exam. Atwell said his discipline learned from the Marines helps him devote time to study. During the work week he studies about two hours before work, an hour during lunch and an hour in the evening. He spends six hours studying on Saturday and Sunday.

More skills picked up from the Marines include an attention to detail and commitment to seeing projects through to the end, something that has served him well in accounting.

“Listen to what the objective is from your manager, know what they want you to do and ask questions,” he said. “Make sure you have a clear understanding of what the objective is, but continue to ask questions, until you know it’s 100% complete.”

If studying for the exam and working full-time didn’t seem like enough, Atwell also teaches at Columbus State Community College.

“I really love it from the standpoint of giving back,” he said.

Atwell’s son is a sophomore at Wittenberg University and has chosen the accounting route as well. He said he tries to impart to his students and son how important it is to get your CPA after undergrad and build strong connections with others.

Long-term, Atwell said he hopes to eventually be a tax partner at a firm, teach at Ohio State and earn his doctorate in accounting.

“I have a fail forward mentality,” he said. “You’re going to fail: it’s going to happen. You’re going to have setbacks but as long as you stay the course and keep going you’re going to eventually get there.”