April 01, 2019

By Amanda O’Rourke

Tax season can be a stressful time, particularly for taxpayers who cannot afford tax assistance. Accounting majors in the Sigmund Weis School of Business are lending a hand through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

Sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service, VITA offers free tax help to people who generally make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities, and limited-English- speaking taxpayers who find it challenging to prepare their tax returns. Locally, the program operates through the Union-Snyder Community Action Agency.

It’s a hands-on opportunity for students to get career-specific experience working with a variety of people with different tax situations.

“This is directly relevant to students’ profession—to use tax and accounting knowledge and to have real clients,” says Richard O. Davis, professor of accounting.

Davis, who leads Susquehanna’s participation in the program, has volunteered for VITA and similar programs for the past 20 years.

For the first time, he offered a four-credit course this year for students wishing to participate and earn hours toward their 150-hour requirement for CPA certification. VITA volunteers are required to pass several exams before participating in the program, including an ethics and code-of-conduct exam and one on basic tax law, which Davis said was particularly difficult this year due to the new tax reform law. All of that work is completed as part of the course.

This is senior Katelyn Long’s second year participating in VITA.

“After completing three tax courses, you have a mindset that you know so much about taxes and tax preparing. After my first day, I found out I was completely wrong,” Long remembers. “There is so much that you come across while preparing someone’s tax return; no two are ever alike.”

Tom Shields ’17, now an audit associate at Gelman, Rosenberg and Freedman CPAs in Bethesda, Maryland, agrees.

“Every [VITA] client had a different situation, whether it was their filing status, if they had any dependents, if they forgot any important paperwork and how to work around this,” Shields says. “Many of the clients who came in were elders, and some could not even hear what I was saying to them.”

Despite the challenges, Shields says he was more prepared than he realized when he started his first job.

“This program showed me how much I learned during my four years at Susquehanna,” he says. “I [understood things] that many of my coworkers were very surprised that I knew coming out of college.”

Beyond the concrete skills students develop by volunteering with VITA, the work can be very gratifying.

“When you meet with a single mom trying to support two kids and she finds out she’s getting a $2,000 tax refund, that’s like winning the lottery,” Davis says. “Now she can buy Christmas presents for her kids, she can put some better food on the table. This is an education for our students, showing them there is another world out there.”