September 24, 2023

Curiosity and Calculations

UMW junior Melisa Pilipovic was 2 when she came to America as a refugee.

Her parents had fled their homeland during the Bosnian War, bringing with them only what they could carry across the sea.

“It’s unbelievable thinking about how far we’ve come,” Pilipovic said of her family’s rise from the rubble. “Going through it all, seeing things progress so much, it makes me want to give back to them even more.”



A first-generation college student, she’s banking on Mary Washington – and her love of accounting – to do just that.

From the start, Pilipovic was all about business. While her classmates crunched cereal before school, she crunched numbers. She’d opened a savings account by kindergarten; taught herself QuickBooks by 13. Now majoring in business administration and accounting – offered for the first time at UMW this fall – she plans to cash in on a dynamic career, pushing her family’s sparse U.S. start even further into the past.

“There’s something about accounting that just makes sense,” she said. “I could sit down and do it forever. I love to open the book.”

From the Bosnian town of Velika Kladuša, the family settled in Waynesboro, Virginia, where Pilipovic grew up learning Serbo-Croation from her parents, English from her teachers. In governor’s school, she tackled subjects like physics and molecular biology. But it was numbers – always numbers – that made her mind race.

When she enrolled, UMW offered neither finance nor accounting as majors, but she’d fallen in love with its not-too-big feel and the College of Business.

“I appreciated the program and what it could offer,” said Pilipovic, who plunged in, joining upper-level accounting courses; marketing, ambassador and mentorship programs; “everything I could possibly do.”

To get through that first year, she’d turn for support to Assistant Accounting Professor Dave Henderson ’95, who also fed her passion for travel. She’s studied abroad in Costa Rica, London and France, and in the U.K. on a trip led by Henderson.

“She’s engaged with faculty. She’s made connections,” said College of Business Dean Lynne Richardson, who appointed Pilipovic an inaugural student member of Mary Washington’s Leadership Colloquium Advisory Board. “She’s taken advantage of everything this campus has to offer.”

UMW’s liberal arts and sciences have even opened her mind to topics like French cinema and meditation.

“I’m not just this nerdy accounting person,” said Pilipovic, who worked last winter at Liberty Tax Service and helps run her parents’ trucking businesses.

An only child, she’s gained something else at Mary Washington. Her roommates, she said, are “the sisters I never had.” Most nights she makes them all dinner – spaghetti, maybe, or chicken and rice.

When she’s not in the kitchen, she might be online, re-tweeting stories from professional equality advocates like Lean In, working to boost all women in business.

“As women, we tend to judge, put up walls,” she said. “You have to put those down. Our accomplishments fall under one umbrella.”

She turns to social media, too, to share Mary Washington victories, both athletic and academic.

“I appreciate how much we’ve grown and accomplished,” said Pilipovic, who plans to stay on in the MBA program. “I want to make sure people know I go to UMW.”