As a child, while her parents were working in the sugar cane and pineapple fields on Maui, Mary Calegari would gather neighborhood kids around a blackboard on her parents’ porch to teach them math. An associate professor of accounting and finance at San Jose State since 2003, Calegari says that in some ways her journey as a certified public accountant and professor never left her parents’ porch.
“My mom and dad were immigrants from the Philippines, and I was born on Hawaii,” Calegari says. “My dad had a sixth-grade education; my mom had a fourth-grade education. They instilled how important an education is in their kids, because it can help you get a better job and a better life. Education was in my blood.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, she decided to combine her interests in teaching and math by becoming a professor. First, she wanted to gain experience at an accounting firm. As a CPA, she recognized a disappointing trend: Asian women had few role models in the field.
“Instead of the glass ceiling, for Asians, and even more for Asian women, to get up into the upper echelons of business management, you hit the ‘bamboo ceiling,’” she says. “Some of my research looks into whether your ethnic background has an effect on your success in accounting. You don’t see many individuals from Asian backgrounds, and even fewer Asian women in executive positions. We are slowly starting to see that change, with more Asian women becoming CEOs and CFOs.”
Because tax laws change often, Calegari says there will always be a demand for accountants.
“I tell my students that every time there is a change in the accounting standards, that is job security,” she says. “Accounting is really good for ethnic communities. Every year you have to pay taxes and file your tax return. It is hard to navigate that information, especially if you aren’t a native English speaker. If you can build trust within a community, you can do so well.”
Calegari recognizes that her students sometimes have to overcome significant challenges while they pursue their education.
“When my dad immigrated from the Philippines, he was undocumented,” she says. “He immigrated under an alias, and was later pardoned. My parents became citizens of the United States. With all of the things that students at SJSU face, I can really relate. My parents barely spoke English, and even with that, I was still able to succeed.”