For almost a decade, groups of East Tennessee State University business student volunteers have offered free tax preparation assistance through the Internal Revenue Service Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.
This year, having dealt with limitations brought on by COVID-19, the program has concluded for the season with a total of 95 tax returns filed, according to accountancy faculty member Dr. Michelle Freeman. In all, eight students, two alumni, one support staff, and three professors helped make the process happen.
“We considered not opening the ETSU VITA site this year, but we have so many community taxpayers who depend on us, I just didn’t have the heart to leave them without help,” said Dr. Freeman. “We were determined to find a safe way to accommodate everyone. Taxpayers stayed in their cars, and a student checked taxpayer identifications and went through information with them. The information was then brought inside for other students to prepare returns while talking to taxpayers on the phone to ensure their information was correct.”
The returns were also reviewed by professors who also spoke to taxpayers on the phone.
“Although not ideal and much less personable, the process worked,” Freeman said.
While tax preparation might seem daunting and complex, graduate student and VITA volunteer, Julie Ngendo, who studies taxation in ETSU’s master of accountancy program, insists the profession offers her a unique opportunity to hear client stories and make a positive impact in their life through their finances.
“The VITA Program has been an amazing opportunity for me to interact with people and hear their stories. We complete income taxes for people in the community free of charge,” said Ngendo. “This year looks differently, obviously, so we have our clients stay in their car and someone comes to their car to collect all their tax information that is then taken inside to the preparers,” added Ngendo. “While there’s not that physical interaction, there is still an opportunity to speak to them and then walk the completed return to them and let them know if they can expect a refund, or how they can set up a payment plan for tax liability.”
In addition to the challenges of coronavirus, recent tax law changes also affected this year’s process.
“An extra challenge this year were the tax law changes that occurred after we had filed the returns,” said Dr. Freeman. “The change in taxability of unemployment compensation and the cancellation of repayment of advanced insurance premiums has caused an issue for approximately nine returns, but we are working through those to make sure our taxpayers are adequately taken care of.”
The ETSU College of Business and Technology offers graduate and undergraduate degrees in accountancy. For more information on the undergraduate program, call 423-439-4432 or email Dr. Joel Faidley at email@example.com. For the graduate program, email Dr. Michelle Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org, Tracie Gamble at email@example.com, or call 423-439-5314.
ETSU will begin scheduling VITA appointments next year in January. Call 423-439-4432 for more information.
Contributed to the Press