Jesse running a marathon in Kennewick, WA, 2023.
Jesse McDonald is a Renaissance Scholars alumnus and current volunteer on the RSP selection committee. After serving in the Marines, he attended Portland Community College. After transferring to Portland State University, Jesse earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting. He currently works as a senior accountant.
How did you make the decision to go to college?
I lived in Montana and graduated from [high school] in 2007. I didn't plan on going to college right out of school. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. When I was 21, I got married, and by the time I was about 23, I realized if I wanted to leave Montana and change the cycle of poverty that we were in, I would have to go to school or do something about it. So, I put out applications. Then, I clicked on a link on Facebook that said “do you wanna join the Marine Corps?” And I was like, “sure sounds great!” The recruiter called me back 10 minutes later. When that happened, he got me in there as quick as possible, signed some paperwork, and I joined the military. I was in the Marine Corps from 2012 to 2016.
When I was done, I was 26 or 27 and I still wasn't really positive what I wanted to do. I came up to Portland because I had a brother who lived up here, and some friends from Montana. I originally chose PCC over PSU because I thought I would go to the Sylvania campus. I lived in Tigard and the campus just down the road. I had two children at the time. The whole reason that I went to school was so I would have a stable income and a way to take care of my family. So, just like that, I became an accounting major. It looked very appealing for what I want to do with my life. I started at PCC in September of 2017 and then realized shortly after that I still wanted to go to PSU.
What was it like to enroll in community college as a non-traditional student?
I was very confident in my academic skills and my ability to do well in school. I didn't take any sort of prep, but if you don't practice it for 10 years, it goes away. So, I got some humble pie pretty quick when going back to school. I thought community college would be easy. It made me realize very quickly, if you want to do this, you have to put in work. I realized I had a lot to learn and I wasn't quite as capable as I thought I was after having that 10 year gap in between high school and starting college.
How did you make the decision to major in accounting?
They say if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life. That works great for a million-bajillion people. For me, I'm going to do something that takes care of my priorities day-to-day, and gives me the flexibility to do my passions in my own time. There wasn't really a lot of indecision about it, because I joined the accounting field at a very fortuitous time. The climate for accounting has changed. It's been more forgiving, the hours are getting a little bit more lenient, and the pay is increasing. I'm very happy that I rolled the dice and it worked out pretty well.
January to April are unforgiving. The accounting deadlines are hard and you work a lot, but I've had the summer very, very free with my kids and we've been camping. We've gone on trips, we've been driving around, and it's just that give and take.
What surprised you the most about college?
It is what you make of it. You can go in, take your classes, get your education, and you'll still get the same piece of paper that a lot of people get. But, that's where you really can push your own independence, with clubs or extracurriculars or sports or just being in Portland. I just found a lot of a little bit of effort, went a long way. The freedom and the independence that you get is probably the most surprising.
You balanced working and being a parent during college, do you have any advice or time management?
My advice for time management is to find what works for you. My calendar is a OneNote notebook, I can't use Outlook. I don't use planners, I have to write it out note by note. It took me two or three years to figure that out and it's the easiest way. I can flip through my pages, I have it all digital. Time management just comes down to how well you can organize and prioritize your tasks in front of you. You probably won't do everything that you want to do and you have to prioritize your own deadlines while also being a human and making sure you have time for yourself. You have a brain and a heart, got to take care of those too.
How did you get your first job after graduating?
At PSU there's Madelyn Parsons, she works for the business department and helps get business students jobs. She helps run the job fairs, networking, and resume critiques. There's [an event] for accounting called "Meet the Firms,” where fifty plus accounting firms come to PSU. She helps get you prepared. I used the advice and the tools that she was giving us. I had an internship my junior year and then I also had an internship my senior year. A lot of times with accounting, if you perform well as an intern, you get an offer after you're done with school. By the time I graduated, I had it pretty well squared away that I was going to work for the same spot that I worked with a couple years prior.
My first one was in 2020, it started in January before the pandemic. A lot of auditing as an accountant is done in a room, typically at the company you're auditing. So, for the first couple of months I got to do that. Then, March comes and everybody's indoors. I did my internship remotely for the next month and then the next year at the same time frame. It was all virtual at that point, so everybody was learning new skills to manage teams that were traditionally in the same room. Then after I graduated, I started with [the same company].
Jesse and his family at the Oregon Zoo, 2023.
Where are you working now?
About a year ago, I moved to a different accounting firm called RSM. I was with Moss Adams in Portland before now, with RSM out of San Francisco. As of as of now, that's where I plan on working for a while. I feel like I found a very, very good [fit] with the accommodations that they make for me working remotely with kids and being able to do my job. I can do this for as long as they'll let me, it's great!
What does an average day look like in your current role?
In August, I got promoted to senior accountant, I work auditing. Primarily, the industry is called financial services. I go through private equity funds, hedge funds, real estate funds, and I do a lot of compliance auditing with SEC regulations. If there's private investing, I go through private company valuations...I get to work in teams and manage a couple staff under me, go talk to my clients, and it's all private. After I went to PSU, I just kind of fell in love with finance and what money does to move the world. There's a lot more that goes on that I just had no idea about, prior to working as an auditor.
What advice would you give someone who is about to graduate?
If it's permitted, take a break and take some time for yourself. You made your accomplishment. Especially if you're in accounting or business, you're probably going to have a lot of hours ahead of you. So, take some time, self-guided, you know what you need. Just enjoy what you did and then get refreshed to go be that professional that you decided to be. They always talk about climbing the mountain and if you have to stop for long enough to build a ladder, you have to rest for a little bit on your plateau before you go to your next thing. Just take care of yourself before you want to keep moving. That was something I wish I would have done more after school. I went straight from full time school back into more work. You have a heart. You have a brain. You’ve got to take care of yourself.
[As a Renaissance Scholar], a lot of us came from less advantageous areas. You think if you if you don't work for a week or a month that you'll fall behind. You can take a little bit of time to yourself. That stuff's not going anywhere. Save tomorrow's worries for tomorrow.
Jesse backpacking in Olympic National Park, 2023.
Why did you decide to volunteer with Renaissance Scholars?
Pretty plain and simple, the Foundation took really good care of me when I was in school. There was a direct relationship between the scholarship money that I got and the overtime I did not have to work. I was just grateful from the very beginning and to be able to pay it forward. They took care of me and as a result my one of my sisters has her associates, my niece just got her associates and I'm seeing people in my family have different trajectories because I went to school. I went to school and showed they could do it. I've helped with FAFSA forms and all the stuff and I was just able to do. I had other smaller scholarships, but this is the one that took care of the brunt of my financial burden.
How has your experience been as a Renaissance volunteer?
Even though I was a little older when I did it, it’s great to see how young and bright and how determined a lot of these students are. You read through the essays and no one had an easy path to get through. There's some candidates and the adversity that they've overcome is just absolutely incredible. I'm hoping to see some names somewhere down the road, maybe I had a helping hand in that one. It's a pleasure to help get resources in the hands of people who are going to use it. I know it’s going to better their future. There's so much potential there and they just need a little help to get where they're going.
What do you do for fun outside of work?
My main entertainment for this summer has been backpacking, hiking, camping. I think I've spent 15 days outside in the past couple of months. That's my go-to is when the weather is good and we can spend time outside. On the other end, I have 12 hours a day at a computer on Excel, so I get my refreshment from that.
I do distance running. I'll probably run the Portland Marathon coming up and I did the Timberline Marathon in June. That's my organization time--just sitting and running. It's nice and boring, not a lot going on.