SF State students give back to community one tax return at a time

Student volunteer helping to file client’s tax return.

Fourth-year student in the accounting major Karrie Le helps file a community member’s taxes. This is Lee’s first year volunteering with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

Tax season is underway and student volunteers with the award-winning VITA program are busy filing returns for members of the community at no cost

For many, filing tax returns ranks right up there with going to the dentist ­– an unpleasant but necessary task. And for those people whose first language is something other than English the process can seem even more daunting. That’s where SF State’s award-winning Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program comes in.

Student volunteers at the more than 20-year-old VITA program provide free assistance to low-income, elderly, limited-English-proficient and disabled individuals who need help preparing their tax returns and can’t afford the services of a paid professional tax preparer. In order to qualify for the service, a person’s household income must be less than $54,000.

Assistant Professor of Accounting and VITA program faculty advisor Katie Hetherington said the nearly 150 student volunteers are providing an invaluable service to the community. For a low-income taxpayer who may not know he or she is eligible, a refund is huge. The money is going back to people who really need it, she said, and the refund will eventually flow back to the local economy. Volunteers speak English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and Vietnamese.

“Filing your taxes is complicated. You need a minimum level of education and certainly language comprehension to be able to claim a refund that you’re entitled to,” Hetherington said. “This program removes barriers for low-income taxpayers, many of whom do not speak English or it’s not their primary language.”

VITA is administered through Beta Alpha Psi, the honor organization for financial information students and professionals, and is an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sponsored program. Nearly all the 300 Beta Alpha Psi programs throughout the U.S. participate in VITA.

Those seeking tax services at SF State are in good hands. In 2016, SF State’s program was one of two recognized nationally by the IRS with the Superior Chapter Award, a top honor. The IRS reviewed data in a number of categories: volunteer hours, the number of volunteers, and the number of returns prepared and SF State achieved high numbers in all categories. SF State’s VITA program has grown from 500 returns prepared in filing year 2005 to more than 1,300 returns prepared in filing year 2015, the year it received the award. Only 28 VITA programs were given awards.

The majority of student volunteers are in the accounting program, but anyone can participate in the VITA program. They just need to attend a one-week IRS-sponsored training program.

“Students can take my tax classes and learn all the concepts, but what they are actually going to be doing out in the real world, if they’re a tax practitioner, is filling out tax returns,” Hetherington said. “VITA takes classroom knowledge and kicks it up to the next level.”

Students are learning skills that they won’t get in a classroom, like customer service and overcoming shyness. Laura Yip is a senior studying finance and she said she decided to volunteer because she hoped to gain customer service skills and wanted to feel more comfortable around large groups of people. So, she started small.

“I feel more comfortable and I know how to solve conflicts now,” she said. “Back then it was, ‘Supervisor, I have a question.’” Now she’s able to solve problems on her own and is one of the managers at VITA.

And many of the students say they enjoy connecting with and helping their community. “They have a very powerful sense of wanting to giving back to their community in a meaningful way,” Hetherington said. “Helping someone with their tax return and potentially enriching them financially is huge, particularly for a low-income individual or family who really needs the income.”