For about a decade, accounting majors at Fresno Pacific University have offered their expertise to help low-income taxpayers through United Way.
During the spring semester, 13 of Associate Professor Sylvia Kim’s accounting students contributed approximately 24 hours each to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
“All accounting students work very hard to support themselves throughout their college years,” says Kim, DBA and CPA who encourages students to give back to the community. “So, it is not an easy task to help others while they study full-time, work part-time and volunteer to help low-income citizens with their tax returns. Although it is part of their curriculum, most students help them wholeheartedly.
Several students talked about the rewards of volunteer service. “It was a great experience,” says Cameron Olson, 22, from Lemoore. “As a student you are very busy, but you are always busy for yourself. It was nice to use our experience to benefit someone who would otherwise struggle.
The Internal Revenue Service’s VITA program, operating largely through organizations like United Way, helps low-income taxpayers as well as people with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers. Kim assigned VITA as her accounting course project when she started teaching at FPU in 2010.
When given the opportunity to revamp the curriculum for the accounting degree, Kim listed VITA and an accounting internship as required capstone courses for graduation. The study program is business administration with a specialization in accounting.
This year, Fresno Pacific students primarily provided online VITA services through United Way in Sacramento due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Students receive specialized training and then tested for basic or advanced certifications.
“All students earn the higher level certification,” Kim explains. “I talk to the student throughout his service and I learn that there are quite complex tax issues that arise. I am very proud that the students manage them well with the advice of their coordinator. »
Some students say the learning curve was steep. “I struggled at first because there’s a lot of new stuff,” said Clay Maroney, 21, from Stockton. “But then I understood. It feels good to give back to people. »
Anita Flores, administrative volunteer coordinator of free tax preparation in the United Way Capital Region of Sacramento in California, said the students work with taxpayers across the state and provide an invaluable service.
“We can’t run this program without volunteers, it’s impossible,” she says. “I originally had about 10-15 volunteers and they (Fresno Pacific students) came and almost doubled that.”
Flores praised their work and singled out junior Irelda Alarcon-Ayon as especially helpful with Spanish-speaking clients. “We have a lot of Spanish speakers in California, and she was able to communicate with them and help them with their taxes.”
For Alarcon-Ayon, 20, of Delano, it was often difficult to clearly translate tax terms from English to Spanish. “Having to explain it in another language was really difficult,” she says, but the work was rewarding.
“I saw my parents a lot in them (clients),” says Alarcon-Ayon. “My parents are immigrants and they really didn’t know anything about taxes or tax law coming here to the United States. I was just glad I could help them with their taxes and walk them through the whole process.
Olson, who works at a CPA firm, says the pro bono service was different from his day job and helped him deepen his knowledge of tax law. For example, he knew nothing about education tax credits until he started volunteering and helping VITA customers apply for them. Olson now plans to file amended returns to claim the credits himself.
Another difference was the direct interaction with customers, and Olson enjoyed talking to them. “All of my clients got their money back, so I was an all-star,” he says. “It was cool to do something for free and to do something good for people. It’s really a good experience for any emerging professional to come out and be part of this program.
Alarcon-Ayon says working with clients has helped her feel more confident in herself and her knowledge base. “I really learned to be more bold and confident in the way I speak. I remember I was really nervous,” she said.
“It helped me be more assertive…I’m so glad we got this class.”