Warhawk Spotlight: Accounting students help Alabamians, gain real-world experience
By Neil Probst | August 22, 2016
Students First/Citizenship and Community: While students prize AUM for small classrooms that create close working relationships with teachers, School of Accountancy students in AUM’s College of Business also are gaining real-world experience by preparing tax returns for some of Alabama most needy taxpayers.
For Kelsey Parker, a senior accounting major at AUM, the opportunity to help families and individuals with their tax preparation reinforced her classroom learning.
“This experience helped me better understand my course material in my tax accounting class because I gained hands-on experience,” Parker said. “It also helped me see the importance of knowing the different rules and regulations involved in tax accounting.”
Since 2012, Parker and dozens of other AUM students have assisted SaveFirst, a state nonprofit organization that sponsors the nationwide VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program of the Internal Revenue Service. VITA provides free tax return preparation assistance to residents who earn less than $54,000, people with disabilities, and taxpayers of limited English-speaking ability.
And in the first few months of 2015, AUM students combined efforts with students from other Alabama colleges and universities to help save Alabama families more than $420,000 in tax preparation fees while preparing more than 1,400 tax returns.
It’s a win-win for the families that save money and the students who gain experience, said Dr. Teresa Lang, an associate professor in AUM’s School of Accountancy.
Lang said the training strengthens skills that students will need in the workforce.
“It’s a lot of analytical work, being able to associate pieces of paper clients bring to you: What are they and how do they apply to the tax return? Where should I put them — these numbers — and where should I expect them to show up once that tax return is done?” Lang said.
Lang also said the AUM students enjoy a unique experience through the program because they work one-on-one with clients.
In the corporate world, new accounting firm employees may work for years without interacting with taxpayers, said Lang, who also described the attention to detail required of AUM’s students.
While preparing the families’ tax returns, students gather documents that taxpayers provide, such as W-2 forms, Lang said. But they also process other information that affects tax return outcomes, such as the number of members of a family; whether tax filers are single or married; and whether any alimony is being paid. The exchange of information can create an unusual level of intimacy: College students get to know what is going on in their clients’ lives through their tax preparation interviews.
“I’ve actually had a few students cry,” said Lang, whose students listened to tax filers share stories of challenges like drug addiction and divorce.
To prepare students for the learning experience, AUM accounting professors teach students tax preparation starting in January (learning that continues the entire semester), and the students also train for eight hours through VITA online materials provided by the Internal Revenue Service.
Students spend about 20 additional hours outside of class assisting the residents they serve.
Although participating in the SaveFirst program requires an added commitment from students, they appreciate the opportunity.
“It was great working with community residents,” Parker said. “It helped me develop more people skills along with being a more effective communicator.”
For information about how students can assist residents through SaveFirst, contact Dr. Teresa Lang at 334-244-3495 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Editor’s note: The Warhawk Spotlight features news about people, projects and programs at AUM that illustrate our Core Values. Need a refresher on our Core Values?)