VITA program adds up to real-world tax prep experience for accounting students

Roger Coda
students working with community members on taxes

VITA students work with clients at the Fredonia Technology Incubator.

It’s back to face-to-face consulting for accounting students at SUNY Fredonia who prepare state and federal income tax returns for local residents through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

Even with remote sessions held to comply with coronavirus pandemic restrictions a year ago, the program – traditionally staffed by juniors and senior majoring in Accounting or Public Accountancy – still generated impressive numbers in 2021. Students compiled 209 state and federal returns that resulted in state and federal refunds totaling more than $440,000 for local taxpayers.

In-person consultations are being held at the Fredonia Technology Incubator, 214 Central Ave., Dunkirk, on Wednesdays, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sessions are staffed by 11 student interns, four site coordinators and seven volunteer tax preparers.

“During this time our tax preparers will be working directly with the taxpayers to complete their income tax returns in a face-to-face consultation, meanwhile the site coordinators are on hand to answer any questions and check the preparers’ work for accuracy before submitting it to the IRS,” said Christopher Shepp, a senior Public Accountancy and Business Administration: Finance major from Buffalo.

Not only does the program, now in its 42nd year at Fredonia, generate tangible benefits – refund checks – for taxpayers, students likewise profit from the roughly 80 to 120 service hours that each provides over the course of the two months the service is offered.

“By working on real-world tax returns students gain confidence in their understanding of the process and rules of taxes, making tax a much less intimidating topic. Working face-to-face with clients allows students to gain experience and insight on what it's like working with the public in a professional services capacity,” Mr. Shepp, a site coordinator, explained.

Self-assurance to engage in conversations about sensitive financial matters, along with the confidence to answer common inquiries about federal and state tax codes, is also gained by students. Coordinators can also build their research, problem solving and professional services soft skills by troubleshooting the more difficult tax problems and less common documents that taxpayers bring to their consulting session.

The opportunity to gain leadership skills and confidence in a leadership role drew Portia McCrimmon, a senior Public Accountancy major from Jamestown, to the program as a site coordinator.

“The VITA program provides real-life experience in the field of tax accounting,” Ms. McCrimmon added. “We are working with real people and sensitive information rather than reading from a textbook. I like seeing how the principles we learn in class correspond with the situations we encounter at VITA.”

A penchant for doing tax work and the internship credits earned initially attracted Zachariah Pawlicki to the VITA program, and it’s kept him on board for another two years.

“Considering I want to go into personalized tax stuff, I would say that this is a great experience for me to look over, prepare, and approve on tax returns. Working with taxes is a good way to understand what really goes on ‘under the hood of the tax machine,’” said Mr. Pawlicki, a junior Business Administration from Rochester and another site coordinator.

Learning to distinguish between expenditures that qualify as deductions and ones that don’t is another skill that Pawlicki has learned.

Career aspirations of Pawlicki include running his own tax firm that serves artists and also learning tax codes in other countries to expand his company’s reach.

Joshua Paris, who sometimes pulls double duty as a site coordinator and intern preparing taxes, anticipates this experience will benefit him greatly in his career. “I am getting direct experience in working with clients and preparing their tax returns, which is directly relevant for my future career as I plan on becoming a CPA and working at a firm doing that exact work,” said Mr. Paris, a senior Public Accountancy and Business Administration: Finance major, with a minor in Economics, from Buffalo.

“I am getting direct experience in working with clients and preparing their tax returns, which is directly relevant for my future career as I plan on becoming a CPA and working at a firm doing that exact work.” – senior Joshua Paris

Paris, who joined the program to gain real-world tax preparation experience and also help taxpayers not able to hire someone to prepare their taxes, plans on joining a CPA firm and working towards his CPA certification.

Students report having great experiences with VITA, Shepp noted, and many return in subsequent years because they enjoyed the experience so much. They left these internships with much more confidence in their knowledge and abilities, he added.

Likewise, most clients have been extremely grateful to receive assistance. Even though the Fredonia VITA site isn’t the only game in town, many return year after year, Shepp reports.

“There are several different VITA sites in the area, many of them with more experienced volunteers and retired accountants preparing taxes, but our schedule fills up quickly every year,” according to Shepp. “Our clients are eager to work with us; some have even commented that although they don’t have to file taxes at all due to their status, they come to our site every year because they enjoy getting to speak with the students,” he said.

That friendly, positive atmosphere that the students provide each year has enabled the Fredonia site to thrive and draw many satisfied taxpayers.

“It’s a very positive experience on both sides of the table.” Shepp said.

Students also benefit from developing community connections. “By allowing students to utilize the skills they’ve learned in a positive way, the VITA program helps students start a pattern of professional community service that will help to carry them through their careers,” Shepp said.

Face-to-face appointments require proof of vaccination status, and can be made by calling 211, and requesting an appointment with VITA. Services are still available for those who are not comfortable disclosing their vaccination status in a remote capacity. 211 operators will direct those clients on who to contact to schedule a time to drop off documents. Appointments are necessary to receive tax services. Walk-ins are not available this year.

The VITA service through SUNY Fredonia will be offered through April 9.


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