Student Volunteers Lend a
Helping Hand at Tax Time
t's 6:45 p.m. and room 214 in the School of Business is packed. All seats are taken - some people are standing, while others wait in the hall. But this classroom isn't filled for a lecture: those gathered here are waiting for help with their income taxes.
That help will come from students in the University's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, who have been spending their Tuesday evenings since late February preparing federal and Connecticut state income tax returns free of charge for low-income U.S. residents and nonresident aliens.
As tax time rolls around, help has also been available at a VITA site in Hartford, where low-income residents have received assistance from student volunteers from the School of Law, and at the 11th Annual International Tax Workshop in Storrs, where UConn graduate students from around the world received helpful information about filing their tax returns.
At the Storrs campus VITA site, 25 student volunteers, trained by three UConn accounting faculty using IRS materials, prepared tax returns for more than 304 people (compared with 138 returns last year). All volunteers were trained to prepare resident returns, and some were also trained to prepare non-resident returns.
Accounting faculty Amy Dunbar, John Phillips and Michael Redemske trained the volunteers and supervised the tax sessions. Most of the people using the service were graduate students from other countries.
"The most important reason for doing VITA is that giving back to the community is a part of life," said Dunbar, assistant professor of accounting. "We all find ways to share, and the VITA experience shows students one possible way to serve others and learn in the process."
All three professors said the volunteers benefit by interacting with real clients. "The students benefit by applying the tax theory they learn in accounting class to real situations. They learn how to ask the right questions to obtain the complete and correct tax information," said Redemske, instructor-in-residence. "They are also giving something back to their community."
Student volunteers liked the work for the same reasons. "I felt I was helping people who really needed help," said Rob Pappa, a seventh semester accounting major.
Nick Cromeyn, an eighth semester accounting major, said "It's great to find money for people."
Tax law is so complex, it can be difficult for anybody, Redemske said. "If you think the tax law is challenging for Americans to understand, think of what it must be like for someone from another country."
And the law varies according to the country from which the person comes. "Students who prepared nonresident alien returns learned that the tax law is treaty dependent," said Dunbar. The tax liability of a student from China will be different from the liability of a student from India, even though the income is the same. The biggest surprise to our volunteers and the nonresident aliens was learning that joint returns cannot be filed by nonresidents nor can they claim dependents or standard deductions - with a few exceptions."
Phillips, an assistant profesor of accounting, said the volunteers may be increasing compliance with the law: "It's possible that without our help, the complexity of the tax law might cause some to not file at all."
In addition to the VITA sessions, for the first time at UConn, tax information for nonresident aliens could be found on the Internet. These taxpayers could download software to help them prepare their taxes via a special website link. Other Internet information was also available in hardcopy at the VITA sessions.
The taxpayers who received assistance were delighted. "It could be a nightmare without the help," said Joy Joseph, an MBA student from India.
The international tax workshop was a huge success, said Bob Chudy, international advisor. More than 100 students attended the program, which had a new format this year: Chudy used a set of frequently asked questions and gave each attendee a copy. The audience listened and took notes while Chudy asked the IRS agent the questions.
Students from the law school have also been helping taxpayers. Twenty students from the UConn School of Law have been running a VITA site in Hartford's federal building. Since the site opened in February, the volunteers have helped more than 200 low-income taxpayers.