Campus-Run Free Tax Clinic Helps Local Community
Internship gives accounting students early career experience, complete with IRS certification.
Brockport students know Hartwell Hall as the home of classrooms, faculty offices, dance studios, and performance spaces. Over the last few years, though, an increasing number of accounting students have come to know it as a convenient internship location, where they prepare tax returns for their peers and for the community.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program provides free tax-return preparation and filing for people with incomes of less than $54,000, disabilities, or limited English proficiency. The national program came to Brockport four years ago, as part of a partnership among the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), New York State, and the Rochester-based Creating Assets, Savings and Hope (CASH) program, managed by the Empire Justice Center and the United Way of Greater Rochester.
The College connection began when Rochester CASH staff found that low-income families in the Brockport area who qualified for VITA assistance were not utilizing its services. They decided to bring the program to the people — and it was one of Brockport’s own who helped develop the partnership.
Paul Usinski ’92 earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Brockport and began working with the IRS as a co-op student the summer before his senior year. He is now a senior stakeholder relationship tax consultant with IRS Stakeholder Partnerships, Education & Communication in Buffalo. His role involves community outreach and education, including partnering with external programs such as VITA. He has worked with Rochester CASH since its inception in 2001.
Usinski has visited Brockport several times to encourage accounting students to volunteer with programs such as VITA and to consider careers within the IRS or the government at large.
“I explain to the students how important involvement like this is, for helping the community and for helping their résumés. The real-life preparation they’re getting, outside of a classroom, is what employers look for,” he said.
In 2013, Kari Smoker, associate professor of accounting, worked with Usinski in establishing a tax-preparation clinic in which students could take a leading role. Initially, they held the clinic exclusively on campus in Hartwell, predominantly serving students. In 2015, they approached the Goodwill store in Brockport to forge another layer of the partnership. The store now provides space for additional tax clinic hours and advertises the program. The momentum has continued ever since.
“This is really a stellar year,” said Smoker. “We have 22 students currently being trained for internship credit, our biggest group yet.”
The larger crew is needed: last year, the Brockport VITA group completed a total of 39 tax returns; this year, they have already surpassed 50.
Smoker’s interns spent the weekend before Thanksgiving in training with CASH, learning basic tax law and how to use the software. Then, during the winter break between semesters, they took a series of three exams to earn their IRS certification.
The students volunteer not only at the Brockport sites, but also in Henrietta, Irondequoit, and downtown Rochester. Each student is required to complete at least 75 volunteer hours — adding up to 1,650 hours in which Brockport students are serving the local community.
When aspiring public accountant Shannon Allen ’17 first heard about the program from Smoker, her academic advisor, she was eager for the hands-on experience, as well as the three credits students earn for the internship — helpful in working toward the 150 credit hours needed for a CPA license.
Allen admits she was nervous when beginning the VITA program. “I wasn’t sure if I could balance it with my coursework. It was pretty intimidating,” she said. Her feelings changed when she held her first few appointments at Goodwill at the start of the semester.
“As soon as I met with one client, I calmed down, because Kari was there by our side. By the end of that first week, meeting with more clients, I gained a huge amount of confidence. Just in these five weeks so far, I’ve learned more than I’ve learned in most of my classes, by doing this hands-on work.”
Smoker takes pride in the students’ increased confidence and feels it is well placed.
“When I send a student off after graduation with this experience on their résumé, employers will see that this is a student who has practical skills and can apply what they know,” she said. “They’ve got the soft skills that are harder to develop in a classroom: verbal communication skills with a client, time management, written communication, critical thinking. And the employers really value a student who’s engaged in the community.”
The community connection has been an impactful part of the experience for Allen.
“The thing that’s been most fulfilling has been working with clients, seeing the look on their faces when they know we’re here to do anything we can to help them, not here to take their money — we’re genuinely helping the community,” she said.
One of her most memorable experiences was helping a woman whose disabled husband could not leave the house to join her at the appointment. Allen and Smoker took the extra steps needed to get his information and printed out their paperwork, which the program typically files electronically, so the couple could handle the signatures at home and mail it in.
“She was so grateful we did all we could to get this done for her. She brought her brother in the next week to get his taxes done,” said Allen.
Interactions like these are among the highlights for Smoker, too. “You can see it in the students: when a client thanks them profusely, they see that this is what it feels like to be giving back.”
VITA continues to welcome new clients through April 13, 2017.
Hartwell Hall, Room 102:
Goodwill, 1807 Nathaniel Poole Trail, Brockport:
For more information, email Kari Smoker.