Alumni Award Winner Ashley McCullough On How NAF Inspired Her Purpose

Ashley McCullough
September 22, 2021

My name is Ashley McCullough, and I am honored to be recognized as a 2021 NAF Next Alumni Award recipient. I want to thank Mr. Blackett, my former teacher at Olympic High School Academy of Finance turned mentor and dear friend, for nominating me.

I am a proud member of the National Association of Black Accountants, and we have a saying: “Lifting as we climb.” I am lucky to have had many people lift me up throughout my life. And today, lifting others is a huge part of what drives me, personally and professionally.

My story is one I hope many people watching can relate to. As a kid, I loved learning, but school was a challenging place.

I was picked on and called offensive names and when the teasing worsened — I’m not proud to say — it would turn into fighting. I would almost always be viewed as the aggressor even when I was often defending myself. 

My school labeled me a “problem child” and was preparing to transfer me to an alternative school that would enforce more discipline. I was terrified by this decision and even at this young age, I realized how these forms of punitive consequences could affect me for the rest of my life. 

Thankfully, things turned around. My mom, who has always been my biggest advocate, stepped in, and I transferred to a new middle school that led me straight to Olympic High School Academy of Finance in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was there that I met Mr. Blackett, Ms. Linton, and countless other teachers and role models who would lift me up and help shape the trajectory of my life.

It was in Ms. Linton’s NAF class where I first felt immersed in schoolwork in an exciting and meaningful way. I had always been an exceptional student, but when I took my first accounting course, the lightbulb turned on: this was what I wanted to do!

From there, things took off. Through NAF, I was offered a paid internship at Wells Fargo, where I met real-life accountants and got to experience what it was like to work in the banking industry. This initial exposure to the workforce taught me early on the important role a great career can play in a great life.

The experiences I had through NAF gave me focus and a stronger determination to reach my professional goals. I graduated at the top of my class with a two-page resume before I even started college. Not bad for a “problem child!”

By the time I graduated high school in 2011, I had been awarded enough scholarship money to cover the cost of attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. I knew then that I had earned an incredible opportunity, and I was committed to paying it forward.

NAF inspired my purpose to lift as I climb. Teachers and fellow students lifted me up, as we were all on our own individual journeys toward success, and I am eternally grateful.

I never want young people, who have their entire futures ahead of them, to feel the way middle school Ashley felt when she thought she was on her way to an alternative school. I don’t want young women in particular, who don’t fit into a certain mold or model, to be judged and ostracized. They should feel supported, celebrated, and honored in all spaces and places. I knew I could be the change I wanted to see, and that I could do so by creating opportunities for more girls like me to succeed in school and beyond.

With this in mind, in 2011, I launched the Ashley B. McCullough Princess Project at my alma mater, Olympic High School. This scholarship awards one graduating senior girl up to $500 to help fund her education. The Princess Project is in its 10th year, and I am thrilled to have been able to provide scholarships to eight young women, who’ve since gone on to attend college and pursue their dreams.

And in case you’re wondering where the name comes from, I initially hoped all Princess Project scholarship winners would decorate their dorm rooms in a way that made them feel like a princess. I hoped this would help them to understand that they are royalty and have a grand purpose in life, much like I did my freshman year.

My career today would not be possible without the workforce experience and exposure I received through internships I had in college at Walmart headquarters and Deloitte. I began my “official” career at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where I worked alongside some of the most amazing, intelligent folks who guided my career with love and purpose, setting me up to achieve greatness.

Today, I work as the Accounting Manager for Thorn, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that develops new technology to combat online child sexual abuse. I continue my philanthropic efforts by serving as President of the Los Angeles Urban League Young Professionals.

NAF created a launching pad for me to make a positive difference for others, and it is a responsibility I do not take lightly. When the opportunity arises to mentor a young person at the start of their career, I look forward to seizing it.

As Marianne Williamson famously said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” To all current students, NAF or otherwise: don’t be afraid of pursuing greatness. Find a teacher or anyone you trust and look up to, and hold onto them as your mentor. They will guide you, push you when you need it and — above all — lift you up.

This award is direct reflection on the people who led me to where I am today. To my mother, father, step-mother, step-father, and all of my family – thank you for always being my biggest cheerleaders. Mr. Blackett, thank you for showing me the value of having an inquisitive mind. To my other incredible teachers, Ms. Sain, Mr. Realon, Mrs. McLaurin, Principal Todd Pipkin, and so many others: I want you to know that your guidance and mentorship have had a lifelong impact on me. Your support inspires me every day to work to lift others as I climb, so I can play a role in building our next generation of leaders.

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Ashley McCullough is a 2021 Alumni Award winner. She graduated from Olympic High School, AOF and works as an Accounting Manager for Thorn.

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