While growing up in Brooklyn, New York, John Savignano regularly helped out at his family’s grocery and produce store. He began working alongside his father when he was just 9 years old, selling fruits and vegetables while learning firsthand about the importance of hard work. Although he would go on to complete extensive classroom studies, he never forgot the importance of real-world experience.
John Savignano continued to work in the family business while attending Brooklyn Technical High School, a prestigious and competitive public magnet institution with a focus on STEM education. Demonstrating an outstanding aptitude for math, he went on to attend St. John’s University in Queens, New York, to study accounting.
After graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Science, John Savignano found work with the Big Eight CPA service firm Price Waterhouse (now PwC) in Manhattan. He was surprised to discover just how unprepared he was for the professional environment. “When you go out into the real world, college teaches you nothing,” he says. “You have to learn on your own. When I graduated from college and went to Price Waterhouse, I had no clue about anything. I couldn’t even prepare a balance sheet. I forgot what a debit and a credit were. They basically retrained me, and it took a while to get retrained.”
John Savignano’s dedication to learning and advancement continued while he worked for Price Waterhouse. He obtained his license as a CPA and joined the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the New York State Society of CPAs. He also returned to the academic environment to earn his Master of Science with a concentration in taxation at Manhattan’s Pace University.
Although his training and certification have meant a great deal to John Savignano, he continues to stress the importance of real-world experience above all else. While going on to serve senior financial management positions with a string of New York City companies, he began teaching others with an emphasis on real-world practicality as an adjunct professor with the Fordham University School of Business in New York.
“I try to prepare these kids for real-world experiences,” says John Savignano. “It’s not only about spreadsheets, it’s about helping the clients solve problems, working with clients, becoming part of the team. And it’s not 100% accounting. It’s things other than accounting, such as working with people, building relationships, and building networks. We just go on and on and on. They seem to appreciate it.”
Since stepping down as the owner and CEO of the private CPA firm Savignano accountants & advisors, John Savignano has concentrated solely on teaching at Fordham University and developing other business opportunities. By framing the basic concepts of business and accounting within a real-world context, he’s developed “a good way of making very complex situations very easy, breaking it down into bite-size pieces so they’re able to understand and focus.”
But this is only the beginning of how a practical, real-world, educational approach can benefit students in the end. Educators at all levels teaching kids of all ages have long lamented the fact that classes and curricula fail to adequately prepare students for the real world. In many ways, the primary and secondary school concentrates on preparing students for college entrance exams rather than lifelong careers. And even at the college level, the tests and projects that ultimately determine your GPA have very little to do with practical professional skills and functional career building.
Two great ways to combat the myopic academic purview that persists at all levels of education are to bring students out into the real world and to bring the real world to students in the classroom. The key thing to realize is that learning becomes more powerful and knowledge becomes more entrenched when they’re contextualized and applied with a professional orientation. As Southampton, England’s Solent University puts it, “This can empower students by giving them the opportunity to co-create knowledge and learn through mistakes in a safe environment.” By bouncing the training and skill-building process between the academic and the real-world domains, educators can provide profound sources of reflection and ample possibilities to learn by doing.
As they gradually become comfortable with the professional environment, students who learn from real-world experience become far more adept in their chosen areas of career focus. They also develop workplace skills that transcend specific industries and market sectors. These skills range from critical thinking and problem solving to effective communication and time management.
The positive effects and direct student benefit of real-world learning are well established among leading educators and pedagogical experts, but its power isn’t lost on the average student either. It turns out that John Savignano’s classes have garnered quite a reputation among the Fordham University student body.
“I find that the students enroll more in my classes than the other classes,” reports John Savignano. “Let’s say there’s accounting 101, and there are three classes available. My class fills up pretty fast, and the other professors’ classes are half empty. And the students tell me that, No. 1, they enjoy being with me because I’m a practicing accountant. I’m not a professor that sits behind the textbooks and doesn’t share any real-world experiences with them.”