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BEYOND THE CLASSROOM


by Mary Falkey, Associate Professor, Accounting

A new partnership is alive and well at Prince George’s Community College. Accounting and business students are partnering with the PGCC senior citizens to staff the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at Prince George’s Community College. VITA is a program designed to assist low-income individuals with preparation of their tax returns. The program is staffed entirely by volunteers.

Prince George’s Community College students and seniors have recently completed twenty-four hours of IRS-endorsed training as tax preparers. Successful completion of the training qualifies the individuals to work as tax preparers in the VITA site sponsored by Prince George’s Community College. Twenty-five people participated in the training for the 2003 tax season. They will staff the VITA site at Prince George’s Community College from February through April, where volunteers will prepare tax returns for individuals with incomes of $35,000 or less. The site is open Saturday mornings.

The value of the program is multi-faceted. From my viewpoint as an instructor, the program provides students an opportunity to apply their education in a very practical way. Seniors develop a new skill or refresh an existing skill. Both seniors and students develop a skill set in addition to what they experience in their academic courses, and they have an opportunity to apply what they have learned. By working in the VITA site, students and seniors gain hands-on experience by preparing tax returns for clients from the community. This discipline-related work experience not only provides an opportunity to practice and develop their skills, but it also enhances their résumés. When they enter or return to the workforce, their résumés will indicate that they have hands-on experience in their field of study.

Volunteer tax preparers are required to interview the tax client, collect and analyze information provided by the taxpayer, make a determination about which filing status is most advantageous for the individual, and then prepare the tax return. This is a complex process, which requires not only knowledge of tax regulations, but also careful attention to detail. It also requires the volunteer to extract information from the client, thereby developing interviewing and interpersonal skills. Because each taxpayer’s situation is different, the tax preparers also develop their critical thinking skills.

In addition to the discipline-related skills that the volunteers develop, they also benefit from working in a situation that provides a community service. Volunteer tax preparers benefit from working as part of a team and providing a service to the community. As the volunteers pursue their training and then serve as tax preparers in the VITA site, they develop a strong group identity. Volunteers are quick to assist each other. Some volunteers prefer to work in teams because they feel they better serve the taxpayer in this manner. They quickly develop a strong learning community based on mutual interest in providing a community service and common knowledge of a specific discipline. Furthermore, friendships and strong working relationships develop out of the experience of volunteering, learning, and working together to support the community.

Time management is another aspect of the volunteers’ experience. Since taxpayers are served at the site on a walk-in basis, volunteers must be able to estimate the time a return will take to prepare, and then complete all the necessary information in the allotted time. Ultimately, volunteers have the opportunity to rise to the position of site supervisor, providing a forum in which to demonstrate their management and leadership skills.

What prompts people, many of whom work full-time, are full-time students, and who have families and busy lives, to add another obligation to their already full schedules? According to an informal survey of program participants, the reasons most frequently given are that they enjoy providing a service to their community and that they enjoy the sense of identify associated with being part of a team. The benefits of serving the community are measured in terms of pride in accomplishment and satisfaction in knowing they have helped someone.

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 19, No. 2

Spring 2004