Accounting students provide tax relief for many
By Peggy Binette, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-5400
No one likes waiting in line, particularly on a beautiful Carolina Friday in March. The mere thought of it is enough to make most tempers flare. Yet, Marina Ermakova was all smiles March 16, happy to have waited 30 minutes in a basement of a YMCA for the opportunity to have her tax return done by USC accounting students.
Ermakova, a 60-year-old Siberian native who moved to South Carolina six years ago to be closer to her daughter’s family, lost her job and was concerned about money. She wanted to make sure her taxes are done correctly and for free. She had used the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) outreach program before and was pleasantly surprised this year to find the site run entirely by University of South Carolina accounting students.
“The first year I wait two, three hours. This time, it was 30 minutes. The students here are very nice. They make it all easy and comfortable,” Ermakova said. “I hope I find a new job. If I do, I will be back next year. This place, this service is very perfect.”
Matt Stalnaker is one of four graduate students in the Darla Moore School of Business running the VITA site two days a week, doing standard returns for people whose annual income is less than $32,000. Having been a VITA volunteer for three years, he was excited about overseeing the USC undergraduate and graduate students who are volunteering.
“I chose accounting as a profession because I enjoy being able to help people,” Stalnaker said. “It’s rewarding to help people who can’t do it for themselves. Some are desperately in need of the refund. It makes you feel good when they’re really happy when you tell them the amount. One woman did a dance because she was getting nearly $5,000 back.”
Ross Alberghini, a graduate student from West Hartford, Conn., said it was working with numbers that led him to major in accounting. Now, helping others has become his passion.
“We try to simplify the complicated tax system for people, explaining things such as the difference between deductions and credits or what to do about non-taxable income such as sick pay,” Alberghini said. “People are really appreciative. It’s a service they can’t afford. They always thank me for helping them.”
Leroy Lewis, an 89-year-old who worked with the U.S. Forestry Service, said it was cost that brought him to the VITA site and USC students.
“I paid $50 last year. All I have is a federal civil service pension and social security, so my taxes shouldn’t be that difficult,” Lewis said. “These forms are too difficult for people to do themselves now. My age and eyesight are catching up with me. The students are very helpful. I’ll come back next year, that is if I’m here.”
Alberghini said accounting has gotten an undeserved bad rap as a boring profession.
“Accounting ties into life on a daily basis. I think it is interesting how the political environment and policy proposals are so closely tied to accounting,” Alberghini said. “Many people think that tax law is boring and never really changes, but I see it as something that is constantly fluctuating, keeping accountants on their toes about law changes and revisions.”
Caroline Strobel, who has taught accounting for 30 years at USC, said service and accounting go hand-in-hand, and that’s why she requires graduate students and members of the Beta Alpha Psi accounting honor society to volunteer with VITA.
“It’s a very valuable experience for them. I want them to see that a community comprises people of all socio-economic levels,” Strobel said. “Most of our students will work with large accounting firms. I want them to view this as part of life. It is important to be part of a community and to be involved in service. Firms stress this, and it’s an opportunity for them to perform a real service.”
VITA by the numbers
The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is a national outreach program providing free tax help.
- 11 -- VITA sites in the Midlands
- 10+ -- Years that USC accounting students have volunteered
- 786 -- Volunteer hours logged by students in 2011
- 2,400 -- Tax returns completed at VITA Midlands sites in 2011
- $2.4 million -- Refunds received last year by Midlands’ VITA clients
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