Crunching Numbers, Serving Neighbors

June 16, 2010

Baylor's culture has long honored the value of serving others. In recent years, Baylor accounting students have found a new opportunity to give of themselves: a program called VITA -- the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program -- in which students take advantage of a window in their accounting studies to use their skills pro bono. 
Through VITA, Baylor accounting students, usually juniors, pitch in to help low-income taxpayers fill out and file their tax returns. In turn, the students gain not only class credit, but also valuable practice. They may even discover a little more about the directions their careers might take them. 
Take Amy Pho, BBA '09, MTax '09, for example. "Accounting students typically choose between audit and tax accounting. [VITA] made me want to go all the way in tax accounting," says Pho. "It gave me a better glimpse into how tax policy impacts people." Pho was a participant from the first group of Baylor volunteers for VITA in 2008, but as she went on to complete her bachelor's degree and earn her master's, she didn't lose touch with VITA.
Even during a busy spring semester that included captaining Baylor's team to the national finals of the Pricewaterhouse-Coopers Extreme Tax Policy competition as well as preparing for and taking the CPA exam, Pho made time to assist in a new component of the VITA program -- VITA for international students at Baylor. Spearheaded by Pho and faculty sponsor Dr. Brett Wilkinson, the Roderick L. Holmes Chair of Accountancy, this pilot program went so well that next year, Pho says the IRS, Baylor, the Hankamer School of Business Accounting Department, and International Student and Scholar Services "will team up for an even bigger program."
Pho's reason for volunteering again this spring, even though she had already graduated and long before fulfilled her VITA contribution? "I just wanted to help; I think it's important to give back to the community in Waco," she says.
The extra experience didn't hurt, either.
"When you're searching for a job, anything tax-related -- even volunteer experience -- helps you stand out from the other candidates," Pho says. "It shows that not only do you have skills to work with clients, but that you're also willing to go to extra effort to volunteer."
Junior accounting student Lauren Ulcak saw VITA as an opportunity to help real people as opposed to doing a fictional tax return in class. "I like the people interaction. I like knowing that I'm helping people," she says. "I'm using my tax skills to help people who really need it and can't afford to get their taxes done. They really need this money." Like Pho, Ulcak says her reason for volunteering is "just knowing that I'm helping them out." 
From the time she stepped foot on campus, Ulcak knew she wanted to study accounting. Ulcak had participated in University Interscholastic League accounting in high school, and she says she came to Baylor because of the high pass rate on the CPA exam -- the highest in Texas -- and the university's commitment to the Christian faith. 
"Baylor has such a good accounting program, and it's such a good Christian environment," she says. "It's somewhere that I can get lots of good interaction with the professors and I'm not lost in the crowd."
Dozens of other Baylor students participated this year during more than 30 VITA evening sessions held at the A.J. Moore High School campus. Less than a mile from Baylor, the building that houses A.J. Moore, a public magnet school during the day, converts to a makeshift tax prep office three evenings a week from late January through April 15. In the corridors of the 1960s-style building, the Baylor students, along with A.J. Moore accounting students, assisted over a thousand lower-income families this year. Over the past five years, the IRS estimates that this program has saved Waco citizens over $1 million in tax preparation fees.
Since spring 2007, junior accounting students enrolled in Wilkinson's "Introduction to Federal Taxation" course in the spring semester have participated in the IRS's VITA program for class credit. Students can opt to work on a fictional, in-class tax return project, or to earn the same credit, they can participate in VITA, getting certified and working for five evening sessions preparing tax returns for real-life clients.
About 40 Baylor undergraduates each spring -- one-third of the students taking the class -- elect to help with the program and obtain the necessary certifications. In addition to student participation, this effort involves Wilkinson and two other accounting department colleagues, Dr. David Hurtt and Tim Thomasson, BBA '91, MTax '92, who alternate as on-site supervisors of the Baylor volunteers for the 33 sessions. Even though the Baylor students are certified, "If we have any questions, we can just ask," says Ulcak.
A.J. Moore High School began the VITA program in 2005, and just two years later processed over a thousand returns. The program clearly needed more volunteers to keep up with their ever-increasing client load. At the same time, the Baylor accounting department had been considering starting a VITA program. 
"We'd been approached before and asked whether Baylor students would be willing to begin a VITA program," Wilkinson says. "But it turned out that A.J. Moore had started a VITA program and used high school students. We could have started our own program on the Baylor campus, but they already had the infrastructure in place to run it at A.J. Moore, and the location works very well for servicing the Waco community, so we decided that our students would join them down at A.J. Moore and help expand that program."
Academy of Finance Chairman at A.J. Moore Academy Ron Smith, BBA '68, tells how the joint effort came about. "We've had Baylor departments represented on our advisory board for ages -- from Baylor's engineering school and the business school -- but when we hit 1,118 returns processed for the 2006 tax year, we realized we were stretching our resources to the limit. I had spoken to [Hankamer School of Business Director of Graduate Programs] Dr. Bill Thomas and to the local accounting fraternity at Baylor. They looked at it as a sort of community service project, and one thing led to another," says Smith. 
Before they work with clients, volunteers complete three tax prep certifications -- basic, intermediate and advanced -- through a series of e-learning courses on how to assist taxpayers to complete and file various IRS forms. In this year's new international component, a few Baylor students also completed a fourth level of certification to help foreign students with their nonresident tax return forms.
"For the first time, we're expanding the program to include international students who attend Baylor," says Wilkinson. Given away by his Aussie accent, Wilkinson admits that he empathizes with the foreign students having to complete U.S. tax returns, since he was once an international student from Australia studying in the United States. "That's partly why I wanted to do it," he says, "because I could see the international students had particular needs not as easily met in the local community. The tax treaties between the U.S. and different countries give different rights and obligations. That involves our students training to a different level and involves training to prepare a different return. We're using only Baylor students to do that, not high school students." This international component is offered on campus, where international students tend to live, says Wilkinson.
The VITA experience expands volunteers' understanding of the human elements and the soft skills needed in a tax accounting career. "It doesn't get more real-life than taxes," Smith quips.
The VITA volunteers receive not only the satisfaction of helping out, but an experience that parallels future job requirements. "They're placed in a situation where they're dealing with live clients," Wilkinson explains. "They interview the client and talk to them about their tax situation. We're talking about sensitive issues; people talk about their incomes and their life situations. The students learn to assess and make judgment calls."
He says that while it's not exactly like working in one of the Big Four accounting firms, "Our students are often reviewing returns that have already been prepared [by high school students]. That is consistent with their future careers, where they will progress to a stage where they supervise and review the work of others. The high school students do some of the earlier preparation, and our students review their work." 
Wilkinson also observes how his students mature through real-life practice. He comments, "I see a real excitement from the students who really get into it. I see things come alive for them." 
Ulcak immersed herself in learning how to assist with tax returns, estimating that she spent 20 to 30 hours, maybe more, preparing for her first VITA sessions. "I didn't want to be thrown out there and not be able to help people because I didn't learn the material correctly," she says -- and her work paid off. "My very first one that I was doing a review of ... my review helped them get $2,000 more on their return." For all the clients, the service the Baylor students are offering is a valuable one. Ulcak says, "They're basically getting their taxes done for free, and they're getting the most money back that they could possibly get." 
The extra studying made the beginning of her semester intense, but as the semester wore on, Ulcak found herself recognizing the concepts she learned for VITA. "With VITA," she says, "we had to learn it all a lot faster. So a lot of the stuff we're going over in class now, I'm like, 'OK, I remember learning that at the IRS site for VITA.'"
The first evening of the VITA program, Cassie Cork, another student in Wilkinson's class, says that she wound up giving more time than she had originally planned. "It was so fun; it was crazy," says Cork. 
"There were probably about a hundred people who came that night to do their taxes, plus the kids they brought, or other family members. My first night I was in 'quality review,' so someone else was responsible for putting together the tax return. I probably reviewed 20-plus tax returns. When there was a mistake, I would go back and change it in the system and re-print their taxes."
One evening in the first week of March, Melissa and John Peña, along with their 8- and 6-year-old girls, were relieved to complete the filing process. Without VITA, they may not have been able to get the tax refund they were qualified for. Walking out, Peña said, "I'm just glad to be straight with the IRS." 
Like the Good Samaritan on his interrupted business trip long ago, the future accountants at Baylor are taking time to roll up their sleeves and help. As a bonus, they get a taste of how to survive crunch time in the accounting world -- or wherever their future will take them.