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May 9, 2016

Student volunteers help taxpayers file tax returns

Juliette Sandleitner/Collegian

Tax season has come upon taxpayers of the United States, a time that many dread for its large number of confusing and time consumption forms. However, the University of Massachusetts Isenberg School of Management hopes to calm tax woes for many with their Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.

Business students, generally those who major in accounting, offer free tax assistance to both domestic and international taxpayers. Clients can show up anytime between 4 and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday to receive assistance in filing their taxes. Students work as both preparers, directly assisting clients in the filing of their taxes, and administrators who oversee the operation and check each tax return before it is submitted. All of the students who participate in the program are unpaid volunteers.

“They come in, put their name on the board in the order they come in, they fill out a few forms and bring all of their forms from work and stuff, and we go through them, we talk to them,” said John Laham, a junior accounting major who volunteers as an administrator at VITA. “We then go online and fill out all the forms and all the sheets. Then we talk to them about their refund that they’re going to get or the taxes that are due, whether federal or state.”

Sean Wandrei, a lecturer in Isenberg and a coordinator of VITA, explained that after the accounting students help clients fill out their forms on the computer, administrators check through the forms twice for errors before sending them in.

Domestic taxes and international taxes are prepared in different rooms by different sets of preparers. Laham said that the different preparers are specialized for the types of taxes that are being prepared and that they have more knowledge in their respective areas.

While the VITA program’s first goal is to help those in the community and at the University to file their tax returns, it is also meant to help students and give them experience in the field that they could someday devote their lives to.

“It’s a very big learning experience for us to be able to work one on one with clients, talk to them about their taxes and just kind of go through the process of filing these taxes,” Laham said. “They definitely appreciate us doing it for them, as well as it’s really helping us out because without this, we wouldn’t have as much experience as students.”

He added, “It’s a university, it’s a school, so a lot of the people who come in really enjoy not only getting their tax returns done for free and getting them done properly, but also helping us out in our careers and our futures.”

Laham said that he participates in VITA for multiple reasons. He enjoys the face-to-face interaction with people, he finds the experience “really fun,” and he likes the lessons that he can learn from taking part in the program.

“It’s not like we’re just teaching them or the teachers are teaching us,” he said. “It’s a kind of reciprocal thing: we learn, we help teach, and it goes back and forth, so you definitely learn a lot as you do.”

“But if I have to pinpoint [why I participate in VITA] to one big thing, I think it’s just really nice to give back to the community as a learning experience, and giving them everything for free, which is really nice. It’s a different and unique opportunity for people.”

Laham added, “People who are working hard deserve to get their taxes done for free. I really don’t think everyone should have to pay a ton of money for their taxes.”

Kayla Helitzer, a junior accounting major who volunteers as a tax preparer at VITA, also said that helping people and giving back was a big reason for why she participates.

“If people don’t already know how much they’re supposed to get back, if you get them more than they think you do, it’s a really nice surprise for them,” she said.

“I try to get them back the most they can,” Helitzer added.

The VITA program is offered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. in Isenberg 35 until April 11. During the week of March 18, VITA will be closed as well as any other days that UMass is closed. Appointments are not accepted and services are first come first serve.
Patrick Hoff can be reached at pphoff@student.umass.edu.

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