Students serve the community, gain real-world experience through NDSU’s Volunteer Income Tax Service
Thirty North Dakota State University accounting students are serving the community and gaining tax-preparation experience through the Volunteer Income Tax Service. Their services, provided at no charge, are open to the whole community, with special emphasis on serving people who have low incomes, people whose native language is not English and international students.
A branch of the Internal Revenue Service’s Taxpayer Services Division, the Volunteer Income Tax Service at NDSU prepares and e-files clients’ federal and state income taxes. If the client needs to submit a paper return, volunteers provide the correct forms along with instructions for where to send them. All returns are reviewed for accuracy by James Clifton, assistant professor of accounting practice who runs the program or graduate student Melinda Fangman, who is one of four interns who supervise the volunteers.
“I believe that the Volunteer Income Tax Service is a valuable service for the people in the area who use it and a valuable experience for the students who volunteer,” Clifton said. “It is definitely a win-win situation.”
The program benefits the community by providing free services for people who may not have access to paid tax-preparer services and by assisting clients in the language they prefer to speak. Many of the student volunteers speak multiple languages. In addition, the program has access to volunteer translators through the Office of International Programs at NDSU.
The program, which has been existence for 15 years ago, began as a class requirement. It later shifted to a volunteer basis to ensure the students had the time and desire to do the work, said Clifton, who has been leading the program for 10 years.
Volunteers benefit by gaining “firsthand experience working with clients in a tax situation,” Clifton said. “They learn that preparing a tax return can be very easy when everything goes well. They also experience how difficult it can be when things don’t go well.” In addition, the real-world experience “is frequently a topic of conversation when they are being interviewed for a job,” Clifton said. “They also gain an appreciation of what it means to volunteer.”
Intern Joseph Anderson, a senior accounting major from Granite Falls, Minn., is responsible for site coordination, quality reviews and electronic filing. “I have learned that there are many important procedures to focus on when operating a tax preparation service,” he said. “I have also learned that there are many important steps involved with creating a tax return; each client’s return will be unique.”
“I enjoy doing something that will help our community,” said intern Iryna Lindhag, a senior accounting major from Uman, Ukraine. “I also want to have the experience of tax preparation before I graduate.”
The program recently began specializing in helping international students after Fangman and a former Volunteer Income Tax Service intern noticed many international students were filing incorrectly. Looking into the problem, they realized international students needed a resource to assist them with their special tax issues. As a result, the interns implemented tax seminars geared for international students and pursued specialized training. All 2011 volunteers passed the Internal Revenue Service’s Foreign Students tax test, and all 2012 volunteers were trained by the North Dakota State Tax Commissioner’s Office on how to accurately complete the state’s tax forms for international students.
NDSU’s program is the only one in the North Dakota University System to have volunteers complete the Internal Revenue Service’s Foreign Students Test, Fangman said. “Our program caught the attention of other schools in the area,” she said. As a result, Fangman has trained volunteers at the University of North Dakota, Concordia, Minnesota State University Moorhead, Valley City State University and Mayville State.
Intern Marcus Askvig, a senior accounting major from Des Lacs, N.D., said he has learned a lot about non-resident filing by being part of the program. The experience also is helping him determine whether he wants to pursue tax accounting after graduation.
The Volunteer Income Tax Service is available Mondays from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the NDSU Main Library located at 1201 Albrecht Boulevard. The tax service will be available until March 26; however, it will be closed Monday, March 12, due to spring break.