Accounting students net great returns in ‘one-on-one’ client connections through VITA internships

Roger Coda
SUNY Fredonia junior Accounting students David Jordan, of Philadelphia, PA, and Shon Thompson, Gowanda, NY, review the tax return they have prepared for Fredonia, NY, resident Helen Burt.

SUNY Fredonia junior Accounting students David Jordan, of Philadelphia, and Shon Thompson of Gowanda, NY, review the tax return they have prepared for Fredonia resident Helen Burt.

A profitable learning experience awaits Accounting students, whose career plans may include working directly with individual clients, through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) internships coordinated by the SUNY Fredonia School of Business.

Every tax season, Accounting and Public Accountancy students help local residents file their state and federal income tax forms through VITA, an initiative of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that provides free tax preparation services, in collaboration with the United Way of Northern Chautauqua County.

While students earn internship credit, the bigger takeaway for them is the one-on-one experience with clients that the VITA program provides, explains Vanessa Ryhal, a senior Public Accountancy major from Cameron, NY.

Being part of VITA has helped a lot by applying what I learned in the classroom to real-life situations. Every time I learn something new.” - Vanessa Ryhal

“It helps make Fredonia feel more like a second home versus just a place to get a degree,” Ms. Ryhal commented of her VITA internship. She’s able to connect with clients as well as her peers and professors, getting to know them a little better in the process, while creating her first real connections in the field.

“The input that we get from students is that this (internship) gives them experience unlike any other internship,” noted Professor of Business Administration Linda Hall. “In this case, they are the tax preparers, meeting with clients and not just helping, but are actually doing everything themselves. And they check each other’s work.”

“Being part of VITA has helped a lot by applying what I learned in the classroom to real-life situations. Every time I learn something new,” Ryhal said. This is her second year with VITA, so she’s also serving as a site coordinator and building leadership skills as well.

Vanessa Ryhal, a senior Public Accountancy major from Cameron, NY, reviews a tax form.
Vanessa Ryhal, a senior Public Accountancy major from Cameron, NY, reviews a tax form.

“We have a lot of repeat customers,” added Lecturer of Business Administration Mark Nickerson. “A majority of them are repeat customers; they come every year, and if we have any repeat students (who do the internship a second time), they remember them. So, it’s really a great environment for everybody: the community wins, and the students win with experience.”

Residents love interacting with the students, and the students enjoy meeting community members, added Dr. Hall, who is also a CPA. “The students really learn how to interact professionally with clients from this experience.”

Business has been brisk since the VITA program began in mid-February. Two office suites in the Center for Innovation and Economic Development, formerly known as the SUNY Fredonia Technology Incubator, in downtown Dunkirk, NY, are reserved every Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., through April 15. Residents schedule one-hour appointments through 211 WNY, a confidential link to health and human services in Western New York.

“It’s going very well. We’ve had a full schedule of appointments, and most are returning customers that have been here for years,” Hall said. “We’ve been doing this for more than 40 years; in fact, I volunteered as a student in one of those first years, in the early 1980s,” noted Hall, a SUNY Fredonia graduate.

Students are typically juniors or seniors and earn 1 credit hour for every 40 hours of tax assistance. But it’s more than processing tax forms. Students also fill out an evaluation form, submit a reflection essay about their internship and update their resume to include detailed information about the internship.

Ryhal’s career goals are to become CPA next spring and work at an accounting firm and specialize in nonprofits and healthcare sectors in a Western New York city such as Buffalo, NY, or Rochester, NY, she explains, “as I want to help businesses/people that help others.”

How are students prepared to provide tax assistance to individual clients?

In the vast majority of cases, they’ve already taken ACCT 304: Taxation I, taught by Mr. Nickerson, a CPA, that prepares them to become certified to serve in the VITA program. They also complete a code of conduct and an advanced tax preparation examination. “Before anybody participates as a volunteer, they go through a number of certification tests to prove they have an understanding of tax law and the IRS program,” according to Nickerson.

“These students are really great; to be an accounting major you need to be driven, and they pick it up pretty quickly,” he added.

“Students seem to enjoy it. Even today, I asked one student how’s it going, and he said it was ‘great,’ and that they had learned a lot. It’s also a pretty laid-back environment to learn, which is very helpful for the students,” Nickerson said.

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