In the world of accounting, there is no bigger accomplishment than joining the exclusive club of Elijah Watt Sells Award winners. Established in 1923 by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the award is given annually to the top performers on the Uniform CPA Examination.

In 2013, more than 94,000 people sat for the exam, with just 55 meeting the award’s criteria of averaging 95.5 across all four test sections (a mere .0006 percent of test takers). 

It might be surprising to some that a woman who was born in Russia and began learning English at age 10 would find herself among such rarefied company. But those people have likely never met Ekaterina “Kate” Pronina.

A 2013 Kelley School of Business Indianapolis graduate, Pronina was the lone Indiana recipient for the 2013 testing year. She is also the first KSBI graduate to earn the award.

“I'm proud of myself,” said Pronina, who works for the accounting firm of Dauby O’Connor & Zaleski in Carmel, Indiana. “People told me, ‘You over-study; you do too much.’ And I knew that. But it’s in my nature to give it my all. I sacrificed four months for the exam to make sure I passed it. Then to get this award, it’s exciting.”

Hard work and sacrifice have been two guiding principles of Pronina’s life since arriving in Indianapolis from Krasnodar, Russia, in March of 2001. She finished fourth grade that spring with a limited English vocabulary, and eight years later, she was among the Top 10 of her graduating class at Lawrence North High School. 

A career in accounting came more clearly into focus for Pronina after a high school chemistry class “kind of went over my head.” She had taken an accounting class and decided that she should do something with numbers. “I just thought I could do (accounting) better,” she said.

And she has.

Pronina arrived on the IUPUI campus as a Kelley direct admit in the fall of 2009, just weeks after her mother, Olga Hall, finished her Master of Science in Accounting at the Kelley School. She brought with her the same steadfast determination and focus that had driven her to earn 18 college credits while in high school. 

With her sights set on finishing her undergraduate career with the 150 hours necessary to sit for the CPA exam, Pronina met with an academic advisor – once – and planned out the next four years of her life. The detailed plan included a double major in accounting and finance with a minor in Spanish, summer school, and even her internship. 

“It was an easy decision,” Pronina said of attending Kelley Indianapolis. “I need silence to read and study and do my homework. I knew having roommates wouldn’t work as well for me. I just needed a good school where I could get a good education and then find a good job. And Kelley was it.”

Pronina’s first taste of real-world accounting came during her junior year. That fall, she and three other Kelley students competed in the annual Indiana CPA Society Case Study Competition, where they finished second. And in January, she embarked on a “three-and-a-half month job interview” at Dauby O’Connor & Zaleski (DOZ). Her performance during the “busy season” internship netted her a full-time job offer.

“Kate simply did a great job as an intern,” said Steve Hise, director of tax at DOZ. “Kate was always willing to accept challenges and achieve.”

The offer relieved some stress as she headed into her senior year, but Pronina remained focused on her goal of finishing her collegiate journey as strongly as she had started. A member of the Dean’s Honor List from her first semester until her last, she graduated with highest distinction and was the 2013 Chancellor’s Scholar, which is awarded to the Kelley student with the highest GPA of the graduating class. 

“Kate was a special student,” said Kelley Professor of Accounting John Hassell, who was also the faculty advisor for the case competition. “She just nailed everything. She is so thoughtful. She will think before she talks or comments. She thinks about what she wants to say, how she wants to ask a question, or how she wants to respond.”

With her full-time job secure and graduation behind her, Pronina began preparing for the CPA exam. Intent on passing it on her first try, she treated studying like a full-time job. She sat for the Financial Accounting & Reporting section in July and nearly aced it, scoring a 98. (Section scores are reported on a scale from 0 to 99.)

True to form, Pronina’s mother was there pushing her to do better.

“The funniest reaction was my mom’s when I told her that I got a 98,” Pronina said. “She said, ‘OK, good job. Are you ready to beat your score?’ That’s how my mom is. ‘Are you ready to beat your top score?’ All my life she was pushing me.”

She did beat her score, posting 99 on Auditing & Attestation in August. She followed later that month with a 93 on Business Environment & Concepts and, finally, in October with a 94 on Regulation – a 96 average and good enough for the accounting Hall of Fame.

“It is an amazing achievement, and I got a little teary eyed when I congratulated Kate,” said Hise. “I wasn’t surprised, though. When Kate busted out with a 98 and 99 on her first two parts, I knew and predicted that she would end up with the highest score in Indiana. She did not disappoint.”

For Pronina, the summer of 2015 may be the most relaxing of her young life. Gone, momentarily, are the 60-hour work weeks that consumed her during the 2014 tax season. No summer school, case competitions, or exams. No pressure to maintain a 4.0 or ace the CPA exam.

Finally, perhaps, a chance for her to sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labor. 

“I don’t regret any of my decisions,” she said of the sacrifices she made during the past five years. “I’m very happy with what I’ve done and how things ended up.”

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