UConn Volunteers Complete 700 Tax Forms—For Free
As a political science Ph.D. candidate from Great Britain, Thomas Briggs joked that he would rather try to negotiate Brexit than have to fill out his U.S. income tax forms without assistance.
“My tax preparation always seems to involve lots of forms, which can seem really complicated,” Briggs said. “As an international student, I always want to make sure I am compliant with all rules.”
For the last six years, Briggs has turned to UConn’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which offers free tax-preparation services. This year some 700 people took advantage of the program.
“We had 118 very enthusiastic volunteers this year,” said Professor Leanne Adams. The UConn VITA program, which started some 30 years ago, welcomes students who have completed an upper level accounting class. They work under the guidance of a CPA. The program serves U.S. and international citizens earning $55,000 a year or less.
“Our typical customer is a student or scholar who is not a U.S. citizen, but who is studying, teaching or conducting research at UConn,” Adams said. “UConn’s international community is vast and diverse. These clients have unique tax issues. In addition, their first language isn’t usually English, which makes their needs a little bit more complex. If we were able to put a dollar amount on our service this year, I would say it is in excess of $350,000.”
And while the program does provide a great benefit for taxpayers, the student volunteers say they get as much from the experience as their clients do.
John McLaughlin, a senior majoring in accounting, has been a VITA volunteer for the last three years and is now a supervisor in the program. The customer experience, he said, will benefit him in his pending job with Deloitte.
“Through working one-on-one with clients, I’ve gotten the unique chance to develop my communication skills and presence in a professional environment,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to take on a leadership role where I have other students looking to me for answers and guidance, which has prepared me to lead teams in my professional life.
“I also take a personal satisfaction in helping people file their taxes who either have no experience with it or may not be able to afford a professional service,” McLaughlin said. “Taxes are a universal source of stress and it’s such a great feeling to be able to relieve some of this stress for people and see the gratitude they have for this program.”
Sarina Gersten, a sophomore and first-year tax preparer, agreed.
“VITA has been a really rewarding experience for me,” said Gersten, an accounting major. “I enjoy working with clients to help make their tax returns the best they can be. The clients are always very friendly and often tell me interesting stories about their lives. Leanne Adams is a great professor and she works tirelessly to run the program. I decided to volunteer for this program, even though I knew I would not receive course credit, because I believe in the mission.”
Francis “Fred” Stino, a junior majoring in accounting, described his first-year as a tax preparer as exhilarating.
“Preparing the returns is not as stressful as I imagined it would be. I have to say, they are relatively easy with my previous classroom experience,” he said. “The class is gratifying to say the least. The demeanor of the taxpayer certainly varies, but I would say on average they are nervous but thankful. Our typical client is a lower-earner, from another country, who may eventually like to gain full citizenship. For this reason, their future candidacy is very much contingent on their ability to prepare taxes each year. Obviously this can be stressful for them. Getting free tax help is very uncommon, but incredibly necessary for lower-income taxpayers, so they are very thankful we provide this service.”
“To me, VITA is one of the most unique and impactful public service programs at the University,” said junior Daniel Ruskin, who is majoring in computer science. “By participating in the program, I am able to help the community in a direct, meaningful and individualized way. VITA plays a huge role in providing high-quality, reliable tax preparation services to those who otherwise might not be able to afford them. I think the best part of the program is developing practical skills while simultaneously putting them to use in helping the community.”
Briggs, one of the VITA clients, said he trusted the volunteer service because it was affiliated with UConn and because friends had recommended it. If he had to hire a tax preparer, he said, he wouldn’t know who was reputable. And software? He dislikes the idea of not speaking to a live tax adviser.
“The VITA program is incredibly well organized,” said Briggs, who has experienced several tax-status changes, including getting married recently. “It is great for me when I arrive with a whole host of documents and then, barely an hour late, I leave with my taxes filed. It is a great burden lifted off my shoulders.”
He described the students as very competent and helpful.
“They are very professional, and if they encounter anything they are not totally sure of, they double-check it with a supervisor, which reassures me,” Briggs said. “I usually chat with them and find out they have already interned with and/or have job offers from prestigious accounting firms and very soon will be charging a lot of money for the skills they offer here for free.”