The Great Escape of Michellene Barnes

Michellene Barnes is a Senior Tax Accountant.  Her job affords her the opportunity to have as much space as she wants, something she could only dream of as a child.

For little Michellene, big houses was what other people had. Growing up in Bishop Lavis, her single mom did the best she could, but money was tight and buying a house was never a real possibility. They could only afford renting either a Wendy House or a Servants quarters, and Michellene did not know what it was like to have her own room. At one point they lived in her uncle’s servant’s and shared the space with other relatives.. It was not an environment that was conducive for studying or dreaming for that matter, but dream she did.

One of her challenges was having to live with the disruptive behavior of a family member with an alcohol problem. The relative became even more disruptive over weekends but little Michellene would not allow this claustrophobic and chaotic environment to suffocate her. It motivated her to excel at school because she did not plan on living like this for the rest of her life. She was going to escape no matter what.

It was in grade 9 that Michellene had decided that she would become an accountant. After scoring high marks in finance in a career guidance questionnaire, she began to research the various fields in the finance sector. Accounting appealed to her because she liked subjects that challenged her and she realized that accounting held the most potential to secure her escape. As a Chartered Accountant, she could reach any height she chose and she would finally get what she had so longed for, a little bit of space.

In order to study accounting, she had to choose maths and accounting as high school subjects. She admits however that she was not very good at maths but she remedied this by putting in extra hours and drastically improving her maths marks. She had planned everything in great detail. She completed all her homework by Friday, revised her weeks schoolwork on Saturday, and used the rest of the weekend to complete her school projects. Although this might seem excessive, for Michellene, time spent on her schoolwork was a necessary sacrifice to secure her future.

Michellene did not just study to get into university. She knew that her mother would not be able to afford the university fees, so her goal was to get marks high enough for a bursary. In matric, she applied for many bursaries and she had to struggle through several rejections. Refusing to feel defeated, she continued to apply and finally secured a Thuthuka bursary as well as funding from other sponsors. She was accepted into Stellenbosch University but this was not the end of the struggle. It was only the beginning of a new struggle.

One of the hardest subjects in the world to study is university accounting. If you want to become an accountant, you have to be prepared to have almost no social life. It is stressful and you also have to be prepared to feel like giving up at least once a week. For those who think they are not smart enough to study accounting, you should remember that Michellene was not very good at maths. Instead of thinking that she was not smart enough to do maths, she put in more hours and she became good at maths. What she had was the belief that she could do it, and she did it. Confidence is everything.

As expected, Michellene graduated with an honours degree in accounting and her next step was to find a job. One of her fondest memories was having her excited mom wake her up early in the morning so that they could take a bus, taxi or train to apply at companies. Sometimes, they had to take a bus, then a train, and then walk a few kilometers to the company that Michellene was applying or doing an interview at. She says that her mom was as excited as her and it filled her heart with joy to see how proud her mom was of her achievements. She adds that it humbled her because it is these moments that makes her realise that she did not get there on her own. Despite their circumstances, she had a mom that supported her every step of the way. Michellene’s mom did not allow a lack of money destroy her daughters dreams.

The great thing about having an accounting degree is that finding work is not that hard. Soon after graduating and completing her articles, she got a job as an accountant, gradually moved up the ranks and by 2016, she became a Senior Tax Accountant.

Despite making it to the ‘big leagues’, Michellene had not forgotten her roots and the struggles she had to endure. As part of her goal to make things a bit easier for kids who are struggling (like she did a few years ago), she is actively involved in projects to help uplift the youth. She volunteers as a trainer for youth maths and accounting camps, she is the Western Cape chairperson for the Thuthuka Bursary Scheme Alumni, and she is a board member of African Women Chartered Accountants Forum. She is also the finance coordinator for her church and she helps train the church’s youth. She is also still an active member of the church’s orchestra and choir.

Michellene worked hard for everything she has and she can be proud of all she has achieved. However, what is most important to her is the fact that she can give provide for her mom who had stood by her every step of the way. Her mom had taught her to have self-respect, respect others and to always work hard. Most importantly, her mom had taught her that you must never judge others because you do not know their circumstances. It is because of these lessons that she has become a success and why she volunteers to help the youth.

Just a few years ago, Michellene did not know what it was like to have her own room. Today, she can afford any space she wants and she can choose whether she wants to take a train or drive a luxury car. She had planned out her great escape, and had executed her plan with great determination. However, she does not plan on running away because she knows where she comes from and she knows where she is headed. She is determined to turn back, hold out her hand, and if she can, take everyone with her.

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