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Alumni Stories: Combining Music and Accounting Skills

By John Robert Morton, Student and Affairs Liaison, and Angela Zullinger, APU Graduate

Growing up in the picturesque town of Napa, California, Angela Zullinger and her brothers were involved in local sports and music performances at school. Her background as a musician eventually led to working for the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), which has provided her with a way to utilize her online master’s in accounting from American Public University. Angela now specializes in helping SFS members with their financial plans.

APU alumna Angela Zullinger

Growing Up with Music

Angela’s parents were both music teachers in Napa public schools. They also performed at special events such as weddings and memorials in the local and surrounding Catholic parishes.

Angela says, “I do not think I realized that there were people in the world who were not musicians. Holidays meant concert season for our family.” For Angela, music was part of every celebration and how her parents earned a living.  

Her parents also taught the family valuable lessons other than music. For instance, Angela’s parents never pushed them to achieve straight As; they instilled in their children that it was more important to try their best and work hard.

Also, her parents instilled the value of meaning above money. Angela has always been grateful for that life lesson.

Performing as a Musician and Transitioning into Accounting

Angela started piano lessons at the age of four and developed her skills through daily practice and regular public performances. But it was not until Angela was 15 and joined the high school choir that she began to realize that singing was where her heart wanted to be.

However, Angela has always been grateful that her piano background enabled her earn money as a church organist, accompanist and piano teacher. She notes, “Well-paying singing jobs are difficult to come by and, at best, temporary.”

Angela’s first paid music job happened when she was still in high school; she served as a pianist at a local church in Napa. During and after earning her bachelor’s degree in music education at San Francisco State, Angela spent about 15 years working as a freelance singer and pianist. Angela also sang part-time with the San Francisco Opera Chorus.

San Francisco Opera Chorus work is seasonal in nature, and the opera chorus is on an employment break between January and April of each year. During her freelance years, Angela wanted an opportunity to supplement her income, and it occurred to her that those seasonal breaks coincided with spring tax season. She sent out an email to every midsize public accounting firm within driving distance, offering temporary office help.

A firm in Marin County responded immediately, and Angela worked there as an administrative assistant for two tax seasons. Over time, Angela was given more responsibilities, and she realized that she had an aptitude for accounting work. In 2015, she decided to formally pursue becoming an accountant.

Angela’s job in accounting keeps her very busy!

Angela studied the basics of accounting on her own and passed the Financial Accounting College-Level Examination Program (CLEP®), which allowed her to waive two undergraduate accounting courses. She went on to complete the other prerequisites necessary for her master’s degree in accounting.

Angela says, “It was a challenge to bring myself up to speed since I did not have an even remotely related undergraduate degree. However, as I worked on my degree at APU, I returned full-time to the Marin firm and eventually became a staff accountant; this practical experience provided a valuable counter to my online studies.”

Angela says, “It is daunting to change careers at 40, and it’s even more daunting when it occurs in a vacuum; I sometimes feel as if I am self-taught since my entire degree was online and asynchronous. I was not sure of my professional goals as an accountant at first; I was a bit overwhelmed by the options.”

Angela started with much smaller aspirations, but they grew as she went along and gained confidence. She originally planned to just get a second bachelor’s degree. Later, Angela realized that the required classes were comparable to the courses for the master’s program, so she decided on the master’s degree in accounting.

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The Online University Experience

Once Angela decided to formally return to school and study accounting, she realized that she needed to take classes remotely. At the time, Angela was pregnant with her second daughter and needed classes that would offer flexibility. In her research for possible higher education institutes, APU was consistently listed as one of the top schools that fit her needs.

Angela thoroughly enjoyed the online classroom format, the pace and the accommodations that helped her to fit schoolwork into her family’s schedule. She attributes her academic success to APU’s asynchronous format and doesn’t think she would have been able to accomplish what she did anywhere else.

One of Angela’s favorite parts of her courses involved her exposure to current servicemembers and veteran students. She says, “Even though I was enrolled as a civilian at APU, I always had AMU students in my classes, and they were often stationed at military bases all over the world. The life experience they brought to online forum discussions was fascinating.”

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Pivoting into Private-Sector Accounting

On a whim, Angela applied for a scholarship to the Becker CPA Exam Review Course. She was greatly encouraged in her academic pursuits when she not only received a full scholarship but was named one of the top 40 applicants in 2017.

Still, the path was not easy for Angela. While she was studying for the CPA exams, she was still working in public accounting. It gradually became clear that Angela was not suited to that kind of work.

Angela sought the help of a career coach. The career coach revamped her LinkedIn profile and resume, rehearsed interview questions with her, and helped her successfully pivot out of public accounting and into private-sector accounting.

Angela worked as a staff accountant at a startup to firm up her basic skill sets as a solid internal accountant. But she still longed to find a way to bring together her love for both music and aptitude for accounting. And then, at the perfect time, the San Francisco Symphony had an opening for a senior accountant, and she was never more excited to apply for a job.

Angela says, “The rest, as they say, is history. I absolutely love it here at SFS. What a joy to bring it all together in such a perfect way.”

Advice to Future Students

One of the most startling epiphanies of Angela’s life was when she realized the lifestyle of a performer was not a good fit for her, despite the skills, discipline, dedication and perseverance she has cultivated over a lifetime. Now that she has adapted to the 9-5 lifestyle, she is incredibly grateful for the profound peace of a balanced life. When the time is right for her to audition for the opera chorus again and add some singing to her busy life, it will be with a whole new perspective and profound gratitude.

Angela says to future generations interested in her path, “Aim high but make sure you are the one in the driver’s seat. It is never too late to let go of a career that no longer serves you and to change course. Above all, lean on the people around you for help.”

Note: CLEP is a registered trademark of the College Board.

About the Author

John Robert Morton is a Student & Alumni Affairs Liaison and has been with the University for 13 years. His bachelor’s degree in European history is from Troy University in Troy, Alabama. He also completed master’s degrees in political science and sports management from American Military University. As a liaison, John Robert enjoys helping students and alumni to achieve their personal and professional goals.

About Our Department

The AMU and APU Alumni Affairs Office is dedicated to sustaining lifelong relationships with university alumni by providing engaging opportunities to stay involved and connected. We work closely with a variety of stakeholders to strengthen the alumni experience and to offer a variety of benefits, services, activities, and events throughout the year.

As a team, the Alumni Affairs team works to build and sustain relationships with alumni along their personal and professional journeys. We actively look for ways to recognize and showcase alumni, telling their stories to motivate and encourage students in the pursuit of their goals.

If you are a member of the alumni community and are looking for ways to remain actively involved, please contact alumni@apus.edu and speak with a member of the team.

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