For nearly a decade, groups of East Tennessee State University business students have offered free tax preparation assistance through the Internal Revenue Service’s Voluntary Income Tax Assistance program.
This year, following the restrictions caused by COVID-19 for the season, the program closed with a total of 95 tax returns filed, according to Dr. Michelle Freeman, accounting faculty member. A total of eight students, two alumni, a support employee and three professors helped make the process a reality.
“We were considering not opening the ETSU VITA site this year, but we have so many taxpayers in the community who depend on us that 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 taxpayers’ IDs and went through information with them. The information was then brought inside for other students to prepare their statements while talking to taxpayers on the phone to make sure their information was correct. “
The tax returns were also examined by professors who also telephoned taxpayers.
“While not ideal and a lot less personable, the process worked,” said Freeman.
While tax preparation may seem daunting and complex, PhD student and VITA volunteer Julie Ngendo, who studies taxes in ETSU’s Master of Accountant program, insists that the profession provides her with a unique opportunity to hear customer stories and unite through her work to have a positive impact on their finances.
“The VITA program was a great opportunity for me to interact with people and hear their stories. We run income taxes for the people in the community for free, ”said Ngendo. “This year, of course, it looks different, so our customers stay in their car and someone comes to their car to collect all of their tax information, which is then taken to the dressers,” added Ngendo. “While there isn’t this physical interaction, there is still an opportunity to speak to them and then deliver the completed statement and let them know if they can expect a refund or how to set up a payment schedule for tax liability. “
In addition to the challenges of the coronavirus, the latest tax law changes also had an impact on this year’s process.
“An additional challenge this year were the changes to the tax law that came after the tax returns were submitted,” said Dr. Freeman. “The change in unemployment benefit taxation and the elimination of insurance premium reimbursement has caused problems on around nine tax returns, but we are working through these to ensure our taxpayers are properly cared for.”
The ETSU College of Business and Technology offers graduate and undergraduate degrees in accounting. For more information on the undergraduate program call 423-439-4432 or email Dr. Joel Faidley at firstname.lastname@example.org. For the graduate program, send an email to Dr. Michelle Freeman at email@example.com, Tracie Gamble at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 423-439-5314.
ETSU will start planning VITA appointments in January next year. Call 423-439-4432 for more information.
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