DUNMORE, Pa. — A select group of Penn State Scranton business students spent the winter months putting their number-crunching skills to use on behalf of a very worthy cause.
Eight senior accounting and finance students participated in the United Way of Lackawanna and Wayne Counties’ annual Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, preparing about 2,250 free tax returns for low-income families and individuals throughout the region.
The students’ work continued through mid-semester and was set to go on for an additional three weeks, but was suspended on account of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
The group — Samantha Evanina, Vidal Baez, Deep Patel, Nick Ksiazek, George Houck, Khushi Patel, Joseph Vulpis and Casey Holman — was overseen by Lecturer in Accounting Angela Bassani, a certified public accountant, who in addition to being a full-time faculty member serves as VITA’s director.
Bassani said the program’s premature ending was disappointing, especially since it was on pace to complete a record-breaking 3,000 tax returns. However, she was thrilled to be able to provide the students with a high-caliber service-learning experience, and was touched by the rigor and compassion they brought to their work.
“The absolute best part, for me, is that they are gaining all of these skills and all of this experience while helping people in need in their community. I'm just not sure it can get better than that,” Bassani said. “We save these families anywhere from $100 to $500 in tax preparation fees, depending on the situation.”
Evanina, a business administration major with a focus in finance and accounting, relished the opportunity to put her skills to use on behalf of the community.
“I think my biggest takeaway is just fully knowing this is what I would like to do for a career. I love all of my accounting and finance courses, but getting this hands-on experience really showed me that this is what I was meant to do,” Evanina said. “I loved the work, and having already completed the tax course, this was more of an experience that allowed me to put the knowledge I learned in class to an actual real-life setting.”
When Bassani was a faculty member at Lackawanna College, she had her students participate in VITA. Upon arriving at Penn State Scranton in January 2019, she began working with Chancellor Marwan Wafa and Chief Academic Officer Durell Johnson to get the campus involved in the nationally recognized program. With little time for recruiting that semester, she was still able to get two student participants.
This year, the campus became an official VITA partner, with four students receiving stipends and the other four using the experience as an internship.
“Unfortunately, we did not have the space to take every single student that was interested, due to limits of physical space, the number of computers, etc., so our five-person search panel voted on the four who would receive stipends,” Bassani said. “We then decided we could take an additional four students if they were willing to intern without stipends — and they accepted!”
The program operated six hours per day, five days a week, so students had the flexibility to determine their own schedules. Working out of the United Way’s downtown Scranton office with the program’s other dedicated volunteers, the students spent between 12 and 30 hours a week preparing taxes for families and individuals. Most days there were about 50 to 70 individual appointments, Bassani said.
Before the program's cancellation, the appointments jumped to 120 per day as the students and Bassani traveled to sites in Carbondale, Jessup, Taylor, Clarks Summit and the North Pocono area. This allowed senior citizens and those with transportation difficulties to have access to the program.
No matter the venue or situation, the students dealt with each client with professionalism and genuine kindness, said Bassani, noting she routinely watched students jump up to help clients with mobility issues to their seats.
And the feedback was great. Bassani said she lost count of the number of clients who stopped to tell her their particular student tax preparer was “wonderful,” "phenomenal" or "so very kind.”
“There were times I felt I would surely burst this season as I watched our students in action,” Bassani said. “We serve many elderly clients, and unfortunately this year a trend was that many of them found themselves filing alone for the first time because their spouse had recently passed away. They're often very sad and very anxious in those situations, and the students went above and beyond to not only ease their minds, but try and cheer them up in whatever ways they could.”
“The people were great,” Evanina added. “The majority of the clients that came in were grateful for the free service and were very friendly and patient with me, especially since I am still learning. It feels good to be able to help someone by doing something I love, too. Overall, it was just a great feeling to hear someone say, ‘Thank you, you have been so helpful.’”
Ksiazek, a business administration major with a concentration in financial services, said his interaction with an older gentleman from Clarks Summit made the biggest impression on him.
“He had been coming to VITA for five-plus years and always broke even. For some reason, this year he received a tax refund and was so happy to hear that. He almost jumped up out of his seat and ended the day by shaking my hand and thanking me multiple times,” Ksiazek said. “It was likely due to new tax laws, and while I really had nothing to do with it other than doing his return, I felt very good that he was going to receive some money back and seeing how happy he was made me smile for the rest of the day.”
Without question, the work itself will serve the students well in their future jobs – and not just in the way of technical accounting skills. Bassani said recent literature suggests that many accounting graduates are currently lacking in critical soft skills like communication, collaboration, leadership and decision making. Programs like VITA provide students with an excellent opportunity to close that gap.
“It's really an amazing thing for me to get to witness their transformation,” Bassani said. “They start out the program unsure of themselves and very nervous to interact with clients and prepare tax returns, which is understandable as taxes are complex and this is their first time dealing with someone's personal financial information. After a couple of days, they were not only preparing tax returns all on their own, but they were also able to explain the tax returns to clients and offer them advice for future years based on their financial situations.”
Meanwhile, the emotional and educational rewards are too many to count. Several students told Bassani the experience opened their eyes to the needs in the community and inspired them to continue their altruistic ways.
“And I've had other students tell me they know what it's like to be sitting on the other side of the table, in the clients' shoes, as their families have also needed to use community supports, and that it feels great to be able to give back,” Bassani said. “Everyone wins — the students, the clients, the community. It's truly a humbling experience and I am so grateful that I am in the position to offer this to my students year after year.”