By Cyndee Fontana-Ott
For roughly a decade, Fresno Pacific University accounting majors have volunteered their expertise to help low-income taxpayers through United Way.
During the spring semester, 13 of Associate Professor Sylvia Kim’s accounting students contributed about 24 hours each to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. (More at IRS Tax Volunteers | Internal Revenue Service)
“All accounting students work very hard to support themselves through the college years,” says Kim, a D.B.A. and C.P.A. who encourages students to give back to the community. “Thus, it is not an easy task to help others while they study fulltime, work part-time and volunteer to help low-income citizens with their tax returns. Although it is part of their curriculum, most of the students help them with full hearts.”
Several students talked about the rewards of volunteer service. “It was a great experience,” says senior Cameron Olson, 22, of Lemoore. “Being a student, you’re really busy but you’re always busy for yourself. It was nice to use our experience to benefit someone who would otherwise be struggling.”
The Internal Revenue Service VITA program, operating largely through organizations like United Way, assists lower-income taxpayers as well as people with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers. Kim assigned VITA as a project of an accounting course when she began teaching at FPU in 2010.
When she had the opportunity to reorganize the curriculum for the accounting degree, Kim classified VITA and an accounting internship as required capstone courses necessary for graduation. The degree program is business administration with an emphasis in accounting.
This year, Fresno Pacific students mainly provided VITA services online through United Way in Sacramento due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Students receive specialized training, then tested for either basic or advanced certifications.
“All students obtain the higher-level certification,” Kim says. “I discuss with the student throughout their service and learn that there are quite complex tax issues that come up. I’m very proud of the students handling them well with their coordinator’s guidance.”
Some students say the learning curve was steep. “I was struggling at first because it’s a lot of new things,” says senior Clay Maroney, 21, of Stockton. “But then I got the hang of it. It feels good to give back to people.”
Anita Flores, free tax prep administrative volunteer coordinator in Sacramento’s United Way California Capital Region, said the students worked with taxpayers throughout the state and provided an invaluable service.
“We cannot run this program without volunteers—it’s impossible,” she says. “Starting out, I had about 10 to 15 volunteers and they (Fresno Pacific students) came in 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 get their taxes done.”
For Alarcon-Ayon, 20, of Delano, it was often challenging to clearly translate tax terms from English to Spanish. “Having to explain it in a different language was really difficult,” she says, but the work was rewarding.
“I saw my parents in a lot in them (clients),” Alarcon-Ayon says. “My parents are immigrants and they didn’t really know anything about taxes or know anything about tax law coming in here to the United States. I was just glad I was able to help them to complete their taxes and explain the whole process to them.”
Olson, who works at a CPA firm, says the volunteer service was different from his day-to-day job and helped expand his knowledge of tax law. For example, he knew nothing about tax credits for education until he began volunteering and helping VITA clients apply for them. Olson now plans to file amended returns to claim the credits himself.
Another difference was the direct interaction with clients, and Olson enjoyed talking to them. “All my clients had refunds so I was an all-star,” he says. “It was cool to do something for free and to do something nice for people. It’s truly a good experience for any emerging professional to get out and be part of this program.”
Alarcon-Ayon says working with clients helped her feel more self-assured about herself and her base of knowledge. “I really did learn to be more bold and confident in the way that I speak. I remember I went in very nervous,” she said.
“This helped me just become more assertive…I’m so glad we had this class.”