The Taxman Cometh, with Spartan Pride

UT students will likely complete 2,000 or so tax returns this year as volunteers for United Way.

Published: Mar 6, 2014
From left Fallon Niesen M.S. ’15 and Brian Winston M.S. ’14 are two of Professor Steven Platau’s accounting students helping prepare tax returns with the United Way.
From left Fallon Niesen M.S. ’15 and Brian Winston M.S. ’14 are two of Professor Steven Platau’s accounting students helping prepare tax returns with the United Way.
Performing a standard tax return isn’t a big challenge for Fallon Niesen M.S. ’15, but she was still apprehensive the first time she helped a stranger complete his.

“You get nervous. I’m 24 and people who are 65 are asking for my advice,” said Niesen, of Cincinnati, OH. “But they are really happy to have the help.”

Niesen said her nerves were quickly assuaged. Her Tax I and Tax II courses, taught by Professor Steven Platau, fully prepared her technically. It was the complexity of each person’s situation that added a challenge.

“The returns aren’t hard,” said Niesen, who is studying for her master’s in accounting. “It’s the situation, like who can claim you as a dependent, people who are married but living separately and how best to file to get the most return.”

Niesen is one of about 100 undergraduate and graduate students volunteering their time preparing tax returns with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, part of the United Way Prosperity Campaign designed to help families with a combined household income of $50,000 or less receive help in preparing and filing their federal tax returns, free of charge. The primary focus is traditionally the Earned Income Tax Credit but also includes tax benefits relating to education costs, child-care credits and other tax provisions, said Platau.

The students — and all volunteers with the United Way program — go through training and testing by the IRS for certification. For UT students, this is in addition to two full semesters studying tax with Platau, who teaches federal taxes, business law and general accounting courses, as well as oversees the VITA partnership, which began at UT in the 1980s.

As part of their courses, accounting majors are required to complete 30 hours of service. While students have the option of fulfilling their hours through the accounting honor society Beta Alpha Psi and other accounting and business organizations, the majority volunteer their services through the VITA tax assistance program.

“This program allows students to apply the concepts learned in the classroom to actual taxpayers in the clinical environment of VITA sites under the supportive eye of the IRS,” said Platau, noting UT students will likely complete 2,000 or so tax returns this year. “After the initial jitters of meeting their first clients, students quickly become adept at interviewing taxpayers and completing returns.”

For some Spartans volunteering with VITA, this is their first time doing taxes, let alone for themselves. The hands-on opportunity brings the classroom and the real-world together in an invaluable experience.

While academically and professionally beneficial, Brian Winston M.S. ’14 said the personal impact of directly helping another person has kept him returning. Winston volunteered last year as well as this, and said he hopes to continue to lend his services after he graduates this year and begins working with PricewaterhouseCoopers, which recently offered him a job.

“There is an immediate satisfaction,” said Winston, of Largo, FL. “For some of the folks, the return isn’t about having extra savings. It’s about making their rent. They wouldn’t get by without some help.”

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