Having been a first-generation college student, Melissa Larson admits being frustrated by feelings of inadequacy at different times in her life. However, she’s come to understand that there’s not one right path for everyone and that trusting the Lord can help make life enjoyed and not just endured. As a teaching professor of accountancy in the BYU Marriott School of Business, Larson works to inspire confidence in students no matter their goals.
The second youngest of five children, Larson loved reading, learning, and going to school. Her dad, the local chief of police, and her mom, a bank manager, were supportive of her aspirations to go to college, but they didn’t have the financial means or educational background to assist her.
“I always wanted to get a college education,” Larson says. “Nobody in my family had gone to college: my parents, my aunts, uncles, cousins. And my parents and siblings are hard workers, but they just didn’t have a college education.”
Larson worked hard and was awarded a full scholarship to attend Southern Utah University. But she still felt out of place at times. “Every semester felt really challenging because I always felt like I was behind. I always felt like others knew more, or that they knew what they wanted to do or what their pathway was supposed to be.”
Without many resources, Larson was prudent with the classes she chose—focused on earning her degree as efficiently as possible. She selected her major with that same mindset. “I didn't want to graduate and then not be able to get a job,” she explains. “So I thought, well, then I better go to the business school so that I can get a business degree.”
Larson jumped right in. “The first class I took was accounting, and I liked it, so I kept going.” Looking back, Larson jokes that her first class set the course for her. “If strategy had been my first class, I’d probably be a strategy major. If finance had been my first class, I’d probably be a finance major, just because I find that I love all aspects of business and learning.”
Her love of learning didn’t preclude her from the continued feelings of inadequacy. After meeting her husband, Larson transferred to BYU to start the junior core of the accounting program. “I always just felt inadequate,” she explains. “I sat next to this brilliant person that just seemed to effortlessly answer questions. It was really challenging.”
Questioning whether or not she should finish school, Larson got on her knees and prayed about her frustrations. “I was praying and just saying, ‘Heavenly Father, I’m never going to be the smartest,’” she relates. “As I got up, the thought I had was, you’re right. You may never be as smart as that person. But when do you ever get to be surrounded by people like this? And rather than compare yourself, why don’t you start to learn from them?”
The transition didn’t happen overnight, but with time she focused on making connections with those around her, learning from them, and creating a community where she and other students contributed together.
Creating an environment where individuals can strive became a focus for Larson’s career. After graduating, Larson worked at a CPA firm until her first child was born and she transitioned to working part time. With her reduced schedule, she began teaching night classes in Utah Valley University’s accounting program.
“I found out I really enjoyed teaching,” Larson says. “I felt like my role as a faculty member wasn’t to come in and know more than the students or to bestow all this knowledge on them, but rather to make learning more efficient for them. Students are balancing so many things, so what can I do to summarize or to try to make this as easy for them as possible?”
Larson understood that need for balance. Having taught some undergraduate courses while in the graduate accounting program, Larson was encouraged by a faculty member to go on to earn a PhD. But the timing wasn’t right.
Her husband had just accepted a new job, and she was pregnant with her second child. “I talked to University of Utah and asked if I could do a part-time PhD program, but there was no flexibility at the time,” Larson says.
Shortly after, Larson received a phone call from a former BYU Marriott faculty member asking if she could teach just one course. “I remember saying to him, ‘I don’t know if my best is good enough, but you’re going to get my best. I’ll do my very best to teach these classes.’”
One course turned into nine years of teaching at BYU Marriott. “They keep having more opportunities, and I was willing to teach different classes,” Larson says.
Having experienced supportive faculty members firsthand, Larson works hard to create a nurturing environment for her students. “My faculty members believed in me long before I did. And they just brought me along. And that’s what I strive to do too,” she explains. “I always want my classes to make students feel challenged, but I also want them to learn, persevere, and find confidence.”
Like her students, Larson considers her time at BYU Marriott an opportunity for continued growth. “The best thing about BYU is I'm inspired to keep learning, to keep growing, and to keep serving.”
As a mother of four children, an avid reader, a world traveler, an outdoor enthusiast, and a recent recipient of a PhD, Larson shares her story with students. “I share my insecurities. I share my vulnerabilities and what helped me to overcome some of those things.” Understanding the desire to want everything all at once—whether jobs, school, and families—Larson reminds students to trust the Lord.
“There’s not one right path. There are lots of paths,” Larson says. She encourages students to ask questions, talk to mentors, and gather information. “But then,” Larson says, “get on your knees and listen to the one voice that matters.”
Written by Stephanie Bentley