From left, Matthew Poole, Michelle Magee, Kim Dang, Ria Boren, Kristin Zimmerman, Paige Quander, Amanda Skurski, Juan Quijada
Several WSU students who have taken Brandon Holbrook’s tax accounting class have more in common than a love for business. They also share a passion for serving the community, so much that they gave up their Saturday afternoons for six weeks to participate in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) initiative. The program offers free tax assistance to low to moderate income tax payers.
Founded in 1971 at California State University, Northridge, VITA partners with nonprofits, city governments, and major universities nationwide to help millions of people file tax returns every year.
Holbrook, assistant professor of accounting, participated in VITA 10 years ago while in law school and posed it to his students in 2017. The idea quickly caught on, and Carson College students launched VITA as a WSU Registered Student Organization with eight officers and 12 student volunteers. “The students were excited to apply their skills toward helping the Pullman community,” says Holbrook. “It’s a fun opportunity for them, and they gain practical experience. Every college should have a VITA program.”
How it Works
Preparing to be a VITA volunteer is a rigorous process. Students have to pass an extensive exam and become certified by the IRS. The IRS provides computer software the students use to conduct intake interviews with clients to determine their eligibility for assistance. The program serves Washington residents who earn $54,000 or less annually and choose to file simple 1040 tax forms. Low income retirees, people with disabilities, or limited English speakers are also eligible for assistance. After intakes are completed, volunteers work with clients to answer tax questions.
VITA members volunteered from mid-February to mid-April at Pullman’s Neill Public Library.
“The best thing about collaborating with Brandon Holbrook and the students is offering a needed service to the community, and certainly the VITA program qualifies,” says Dan Owens, Neill Public Library adult services librarian. “We embrace the concept of combining the library as a discovery platform and a resource. We try to connect library patrons with knowledge or experiences that will positively impact them in some way. So VITA is a great fit.”
The VITA program benefits both students and the public. Volunteer Michelle Magee (’18 Acc.) says she helped a lot of fellow volunteers become more confident in their knowledge when answering questions for the 50+ walk-in clients served this year. My Le (’18 Fin., Econ.) plans to become an investor and gained important income tax experience. Connor Pratt, an accounting junior, says serving the community was motivating and provided a glimpse into what his future career as a tax accountant would be like. “For me, the best thing about VITA is using my skill to help people,” notes Ria Boren (’18 Acc.), WSU VITA president. “Also, it’s nice to have comradery among accounting students.”
“Participating in VITA is a great opportunity for students to do a real tax return,” says Holbrook. “Volunteers can use the experience to enhance their résumés or as a talking point when interviewing for a job. The biggest benefit to the public is that it gives them a free resource and takes away their fear of filing taxes.”
VITA client Christina Langley, a WSU zoology and pre-vet student, heard about VITA from a friend on campus. “I needed help with my taxes—I tried TurboTax, and it is not as easy as people say,” she says. “The VITA volunteers helped me understand the differences in state taxes since I worked in Idaho and Washington. Also, helping students gain experience is really cool.”
VITA is open to any WSU student who completes the certification process, and is supported by the WSU Hoops Taxation Research & Policy Institute that provides supplies needed to run the program. VITA volunteers hope to expand their services to rural communities between Pullman and Spokane by 2019.