1. Michael Vasilou

Michael Vasilou

Senior Professor and Chairman, Business Department

DeVry University Chicago

Teaching Field: Accounting and Finance

"My job is to transform students. DeVry trains people to succeed in the corporate environment. They come to us as rookies and they leave as business people. You can see it. A class of freshmen and a class of seniors on campus look like completely different people."

Where I come from

As an undergraduate, I majored in history at Loyola and wanted to teach, but I thought it was impractical to become a professor. With a group of my friends, I went to law school for the material rewards. I worked my way through law school as a waiter; it was a rough experience. I'd leave after a day of classes, read on the subway and in the back of the restaurant. Then I was a lawyer for a while and didn't like it.

I went to business school at night, and got an MBA from the University of Chicago. With that combination of business and law, I got work I liked, writing and managing 401k plans for small business. One day, 17 years ago, I answered an ad for someone to teach a 7:00 am law class at DeVry University. I'd always wanted to teach, and I figured I could fit it in before starting my business day in the Loop.

Later the chairman offered me a 9:00 am class if I'd teach accounting, and I'd do anything for two hours more sleep. For a while I juggled teaching and my pension practice, but it began to feel like working my way through college - torn and tiring. When I received an offer to chair the accounting department 12 years ago, I became a full-time professor.

"A young person without connections in the world"

I had a student who was waitressing her way through college. She kept falling asleep in class. One day she came into the office and I smelled that restaurant smell on her and I knew why. She said the work was killing her and she didn't have time to look for a job in her field. I called everyone I knew to try to find her an accounting job in the city and finally got her in somewhere.

That's what got our internship program going. There is nothing that students like her can do outside of school that looks good enough on their resume to interest employers, even though they are working their tails off and would be outstanding employees wherever they go. That's what happened to me when I got out of law school. As a young person without connections in the world, you are adrift. Once you break in, life is different.

Getting systematic about internships

We needed an internship system; we couldn't afford to be hit or miss like that. My colleague Professor Stubb and I called all our connections. We got very lucky with the Institute of Real Estate Managers, whose members manage large office buildings in the city. Many had similar backgrounds to our students and they were very sympathetic. They let us pitch DeVry University's internship program at their annual meeting. In one year, we've placed about 25 interns through them. Of the first five interns, two got full-time job offers from it, and those who didn't still made very influential contacts. Other companies hear about the program from their peers and call us, so I think the program will expand astronomically in the next few years.

Transformative teaching

My job is to transform students. DeVry University trains people to succeed in the corporate environment. They come to us as rookies and they leave as business people. You can see it. A class of freshmen and a class of seniors on campus look like completely different people. We call on former students who are managers at Big 4 accounting firms; when they were here, they were just kids who worked in their dad's dry-cleaner at night. Some of them could barely speak English when they enrolled here.

What drives students

The main thing that DeVry University students share is the outsider's drive to get inside, to make it. Many students on the Chicago campus come from immigrant families. Their parents often run small businesses where everyone works, making constant sacrifices and living on the edge. They don't want to live that way. They want to have a corporate career that provides benefits and a middle-class status. A small percentage of our students want to be entrepreneurs. The skills we teach will help them succeed at that too.

Finding a niche

We prepare students for their first position. For example, the tax departments of accounting firms are the more mechanical, less prestigious parts of the firm. Students from prestige schools tend to avoid these jobs. We saw that as an opening, where our students could learn how to operate in that environment without having to compete immediately with students from more privileged backgrounds that taught them the social skills for client contact.

We started working this niche years ago at Price Waterhouse, DeVry University's auditor at the time. Professor Stubb and Professor Monbrod were instrumental in getting them to hire our top students. Once our students got in, they were able to compete on technical ability. Many successful graduates start in tax departments and rise to general managerial positions.

Diversity hiring

Another angle we work is diversity hires. The most diverse student body in America is right here on the Chicago campus, ready for the work force. Corporations are looking for minorities and particularly for bilingual and international employees because business is global. Are you doing business in China? My students are fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, and they know the culture. They have an advantage over students from more prestigious schools who have only lived in America, only speak English, and don't know Bulgaria from Romania.

"Living room" learning

Maybe because of my history training, I teach using original source documents, which in the business world are financial statements. I don't plod through journal entries. Financial statements provide real world information about how things work. That gets students interested and we just talk our way through business problems.

Once a new kid joined the accounting class and after a while he said, "What are you doing here? Nobody raises a hand, but nobody interrupts anybody. You are just all talking." And someone answered, "That's just how it is here. It's like being in the living room with your family and your dad is explaining something to you." It was just what I'd always dreamed teaching would be. That was one of the highlights of my teaching career.

Street creed

DeVry University started here in Chicago, where some people still think of us as a trade school instead of a business school. "Pioneers in accounting education" is our new reputation among academics, and the business world is beginning to realize that. DeVry University Chicago has been here for over 80 years and we have a lot of good contacts in industry. Our business programs are 15 years old and we are building our contacts and networks.

Why DeVry?

DeVry University provides excellent courses, but coursework is not our edge. Acculturation is. Our students are not taught by teaching assistants, they are taught by professors. Almost all of our accounting faculty are first-generation Americans; most are the first generation in their family to go to college. We see in our own lives that college can be a transformative experience, and we want to make that happen for our students. We have good graduate employment ratios for all students. We put in an extra effort to help top students get employed in high profile positions, where they can blaze a trail for others.