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Filing a return? It's not taxing on these students

Updated: Apr 18

Reporter: J. Sidney Malone Producer: Ying Yee Wong

An image of the standard form 1040 on a wood background
The VITA program helps low-income, non-native English speakers and the elderly file their taxes for free.

April 18, 2023, is the last day to file the 2022 annual tax return. While most people focused on filing their personal tax returns, some volunteered to help underserved people prepare their tax filing.

According to Benefits.Gov, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program aims to serve people with low to moderate-income( $60,000 or less gross income), disabilities, the elderly, and people who can only speak to limited English-speaking taxpayers by providing free tax help, such as assisting clients' prepare current year returns, prior year returns, and amended returns.

IRS-certified volunteers would help them individually prepare for the basic income tax return in electronic filing. All of the volunteers are from the Gies Department of Accountancy. They had been trained through the IRS VITA program and supported by their faculty.

Steve Huang is one of the members of IRS-certified volunteers, and he is also a senior at the Gies College of Business. While working hard on academic study, he is interning at Crowe LLP in Chicago. His responsibility is to help the firm file taxes for big corporations and wealthy clients with complicated returns. The job role helped him get familiar with tax filing, and he thought using this technique to help other people was also a way to contribute to the community.

Thus, he would spend his free time as a tax reviewer in Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, a student program run by the internal revenue service. The service is provided around the community, schools, libraries, shopping malls, neighborhood centers, and other convenient locations.

Huang also stated this service focused on a specific group of people, "they have a more straightforward structure over their income tax, which is why students can do it."

This year, The University of Illinois' VITA program set up shop at the community center run by Salt & Light and accepted walk-in appointments from February to April.

The VITA volunteers would conduct an interview with the client to verify their identities. The following step would prepare the tax return while in their virtual classroom. Clients will receive a phone call if VITA needs additional questions about the tax return. After finishing the above procedure, clients would be directed to return to Salt & Light to pick up a tax return printed copy.

The above procedure helped Huang learn a lot from working with VITA, even though he previously knew how to file taxes. He gained a lot of practical skills that he could not learn from the class, such as communication with clients. The learning experience made him feel being a member of VITA is a win-win situation, providing a valuable service to the community and gaining practical experience in tax preparation.

"Sometimes we have very great news. They have $2,000 to $3,000 of tax refunded to them. Or it could be sad news sometimes. They have more than $2,000 in taxes due. That sometimes is kind of difficult." Huang said.

These challenges always encourage Huang and his fellow volunteers to stay motivated in this role. He said he felt great to get his hands dirty to help their clients get returns, that experiences were precious, and that he could not achieve this when he worked as an intern in a professional firm.

"I'm in an assistant role. I didn't have to go directly into the returns because I'm not as knowledgeable about it as the associates and managers at the firm." Huang compared with the firm he is interning and VITA felt that he was taking more responsibility and reviewing more returns in VITA.

The flexibility of working in VITA is high, where the workload is manageable. Still, there was an increase that people who would like to seek help for preparation and review help this season. "I remembered last season; typically, we got four returns each week. This season we only had one week where we got four returns; that was the first week. Now all you do is pray you don't get eight returns."

While the workload is gradually heavier, he and other VITA staff are committed to clients to provide the best service. He said he had a sense of accomplishment when dealing with complex returns successfully. It is an enriching experience.

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