An Unconventional Path: From the FBI to a Master of Accountancy

March 8, 2021

As a high schooler, Mekal Smith dreamed of attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, but a friend convinced him not to apply. Years later, he considered himself fortunate when his career with the FBI brought him to Knoxville.

Smith majored in psychology at Tuskegee University with an eye on becoming a forensic psychologist for the FBI. Upon graduating cum laude in 2016, he accepted an offer to work for the bureau as an operations support technician. By the time his career trajectory led him to take on the role of human resources specialist for the bureau’s Knoxville division, he was beginning to think about pursuing a different path.

“I saw this as an opportunity to apply to a school I’d always wanted to attend and to seek a challenging opportunity to grow,” he said. “My lack of financial literacy and my interest in accounting principles regarding wealth accumulation were the primary factors that motivated me to pursue a Master of Accountancy.”

Prior to enrolling in the MAcc program at UT’s Haslam College of Business, Smith’s only accounting education consisted of two entry-level courses he took while minoring in business administration at Tuskegee. After taking some prerequisite classes at UT, he entered the MAcc class of 2021. 

According to Robert Fuller, director of the MAcc program at Haslam, most of the program’s students enroll shortly after completing their bachelor’s degree in accounting. Smith is one of a small percentage of students who enter the program later, seeking a career change or a new skill set that will help them advance in their current organization.

“When I first met Mekal, he had such a rich and varied background, I wondered if we were just a temporary stop on his journey,” Fuller said. “After meeting with him, I found he has a strong sense of purpose to help improve the financial literacy of struggling families who do not have the means to obtain such knowledge. He sees our program as a means to improve himself so he can, in turn, help others.”

Smith credits the Haslam accounting faculty with helping him define his purpose. Upon arriving at the college, he joined the National Association of Black Accountants, where, he said, “I immersed myself in every opportunity to ensure I converted my psychology mindset to an accounting mindset. I was well aware of the hurdles of learning this new skill.”

While at Haslam, Smith also developed a business plan for The Sleepy Owl Company, which he envisions as a website where aspiring authors can publish their work and use video elements to enhance the reading experience. His pitch took third place in the lifestyle business category in the fall 2020 Graves Business Plan Competition, receiving a $2,000 award. 

“The Sleepy Owl Company was formed because I had a hard time being motivated to write my novel that I have been putting off for a year,” Smith said. “Sleepy Owl will provide a platform that will incentivize the author to finish his/her story by allowing quick monetization and lowering the cost of publishing.” 

In his spare time, Smith advocates for the U.S. Department of Education’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), which helps high school students in underrepresented communities access postsecondary education. Occasionally, he also does speaking engagements to educate students about the mindset needed to work for the FBI. 

After completing the MAcc program, Smith plans to become a tax consultant for Deloitte, helping clients implement tax strategies for accumulating and passing down wealth. 

“My journey is a journey of taking risks and the willingness to reinvent yourself when you feel you’ve outgrown your environment,” Smith said. “And,” he added, “accounting is fun.”


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,