Providence, R.I. — Many Americans dread filing their taxes, so they turn to professionals to get the job done.
But six Providence College students have taken on this unwelcome task, volunteering to prepare returns for low-income city residents at a nearby nonprofit through an IRS program.
The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program trains people to provide free tax preparation to individuals and families who earn less than $50,000. The program ensures that those who qualify for benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit are able to keep as much of their refund as possible — rather than spend part of that money to get it back.
In the fall, IRS officials recruited Capital City Community Centers, in Providence’s Smith Hill neighborhood, to host a VITA site because there were few organizations in the area that provided the service, said Susan E. Stevenson, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer. The center has an early childhood learning program, before- and after-school care, and services for seniors in addition to a food pantry and caseworker services.
Stevenson only had a few months to prepare, however.
“My biggest challenge as site coordinator was to find volunteers, and to make sure they completed training,” she said.
She turned to one of her advisory board members, Dr. Susan Grossman, assistant professor of social work at PC. Grossman connected with Ann Galligan Kelley, associate professor of accountancy, to spread the word among accountancy and finance majors.
“The mission of social work isn’t always the delivering of services, but coordination of services and resources,” Grossman said.
Six students ultimately completed the 40 hours of online and face-to-face training on tax law and the tax preparation software: Iryna Bocharova ’15 (Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine), Elizabeth Cisek ’13 (Cockeysville, Md.), Amanda Hadsell ’13 (Troy, N.Y.), Brendan Nelson ’13 (Wethersfield, Conn.), Jacob O'Neill ’15 (Raymond, Maine), and Xiaodan Situ ’13 (Quincy, Mass.). Nelson and Bocharova completed additional hours to achieve intermediate certification; Situ continued on for advanced certification.
As of early April, the volunteers at the center had completed 45 returns, getting $71,200 in refunds for clients back from the federal government.
“They’ve just been such an enthusiastic and dependable group of students,” Stevenson said. “It’s been very great working with them.”
The average turnaround time for refunds is about two weeks, although some clients had received them more quickly earlier in the season.
Theories applicable to real life
Several accountancy majors said the volunteer work complemented their course work. Hadsell has been volunteering while taking an advanced Accountancy course, Taxes and Business Decisions. “You get to learn the theory and concepts while you’re doing it,” she said.
Nelson said he has done other volunteer work in his time at PC, but this has been particularly rewarding.
“It’s a good way to gain experience and help people out at the same time,” said Nelson. “I’m able to learn a lot, and it’s practical knowledge, too.”
The tax preparation software makes things easier, and each return is reviewed for accuracy before it is submitted. “You don’t have to do any calculations yourself,” Hadsell said. “It’s very user friendly.”
The savings can be considerable for some people. “We get people credits they don’t realize they have,” Hadsell said.
One client earned just $12,000 in income but paid $120 to have her income taxes prepared in previous years, Hadsell said. “There are more important things to spend your income on,” she said.
“You really get to see the results,” Nelson said.
The experience has led some of the students to consider pursuing a career in the tax field, and others to think about changing majors. “This has made a big difference in my life,” said Hadsell, who discovered a talent for taxes through the program.
As an international student, “until now I’ve never understood this huge, complicated system,” said Bocharova, who is majoring in quantitative economics. But the intermediate-level training helped her learn lots of legal and professional vocabulary, and when it came time to file her own taxes for part of her scholarship and her part-time job, she felt like she had a better grasp.
The students added that they appreciated connecting with Providence residents and learning how much they have in common. Bocharova, for example, filed a return for a student at Rhode Island College.
This partnership is the kind “the College seeks to foster and build, and I think one that can be institutionalized,” Grossman said.
“I love it when students get to have real-life, real-world experience, where they’re doing something important for another person, especially an adult, in their life,” she said. “They kind of think of themselves as young college kids. They don’t experience themselves as being potent individuals in the world.”
— Liz F. Kay