Accounting students provide volunteer income tax filing services to community

Group of casually dressed student volunteers pose for a photo at a table

Penn State Scranton Assistant Business Professor Angela Bassani and her students are again volunteering with the IRS VITA program, where they help individuals filing their annual taxes. Seated, from left are: Laxmi Dahal, Cameron Mackerley and Celeste Juarez. Standing, from left are: Tanner Begin, Austin Lipinski, Rebecca Tomczyk, Angela Bassani, Jordan Coles, Erica Yatzun, Charles McAvoy and Swapnil Bhatt.

Credit: Penn State

DUNMORE, Pa. — With tax season now underway, a handful of Penn State Scranton accounting students from Angela Bassani’s accounting courses are applying the skills they learned in the classroom by getting involved in this year’s IRS VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) Program to help the local community by doing individuals’ taxes for free.

Bassani, assistant teaching professor of accounting, became a full-time faculty member at Penn State Scranton in January 2019 and has had her accounting students involved with the VITA Program since her first month on campus. Now, each spring semester, her accounting students join Bassani in running the VITA Program.

Bassani explained that some students who get involved in the program complete their internship credits this way, as all business majors must complete a minimum of three-credits of an internship as part of the curriculum, while others come solely to gain experience and volunteer.

This is the case for two of her students, Jordan Coles and Charles McAvoy, who are current interns with VITA.

Coles, a fourth-year business administration major, wanted to get involved in the VITA Program to understand more about doing taxes in a different environment and learning a new system to expand her knowledge from what she learned in her previous internship of working at a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) office. 

McAvoy, a fourth-year student majoring in accounting and double minoring in IT and finance, also wanted to get involved with VITA because he believes it is a great public resource.

“Taxes can be tough for people and the fact there is an organization that helps people through it a turbulent and tough to grasp concept,” he said.

Applying classroom concepts to a real-world environment

Students learn the federal tax regulations, along with how to prepare a federal tax return in the fall semester, when they take Bassani’s ACCTG 405 — Principles of Taxation course. 

“In tax class, I have students prepare tax returns for fictitious families as we learn the tax laws,” Bassani said. “This helps them to understand how the financial information gets reported and calculated throughout the tax forms in a controlled environment. However, it’s a whole other ball game when students are sitting in front of taxpayers with all of the documents they brought with them.”

Bassani also stressed the importance of communication.

“Students need to be able to have a conversation with each taxpayer and identify the relevant pieces of information presented to them. That is one way that participation in VITA really helps to hone their communication skills,” she said.

Students’ communication skills are also enhanced when they need to explain concepts to the taxpayers. 

“For example, a taxpayer may be confused as to why their refund is quite different than it was last year,” Bassani explained. “Students need to draw on their knowledge and understanding of tax law, which is complex, and then verbally explain it in a way that makes sense to a taxpayer that likely has little background or formal understanding of tax.”

In addition to what’s taught in the classroom, students who choose to participate in the VITA Program must learn additional concepts to fully serve taxpayers, including how to utilize our tax preparation software (TaxWise), how to prepare state and local taxes in addition to federal, and how to prepare Pennsylvania property tax and rent rebates for those who qualify. 

Coles is excited to put the knowledge she learned in the classroom and apply it to the VITA Program, “especially to help people in our nearby communities file their taxes for free,” she said.

“I think this is a great program to offer because everyone needs to file their taxes, but not everyone can afford to pay a CPA or other enrolled agent to do so for them. Being able to help out those who may not be able to afford this service while also putting my tax knowledge to use is a great feeling,” Coles said.

McAvoy agrees with Coles about how rewarding it is to apply his knowledge in the real-world. “It will let me get a better grasp on concept realization in the workplace,” he said.

“I believe that what my classes really helped me prepare for is that simple errors can do so much damage to a tax return,” McAvoy said. “I learned various common issues that can and will occur out there, which will help me prepare myself for VITA. VITA also showed me some new things so far in actual tax preparation via how software works to error recognition.”

All students are certified

All student volunteers and intern tax preparers are certified by the IRS. In addition, every single return that is prepared is also checked over by either a CPA (certified public accountant), such as Bassani and/or Richard Kokas, adjunct professor of business, as well as an Enrolled Agent (EA), Dillon Lukus, who has her own tax firm in Clarks Summit. 

Appointments are still available within Lackawanna and Wayne Counties. Booking appointments in advance is encouraged. You can learn more about the complete checklist of what is needed and a schedule of this year’s appointments.

“We are available at each location to answer questions and review tax returns prior to finalizing them,” Bassani said. “Based on what we’ve been told, tax return preparation fees for individual and family returns will range from $200-$600 in our area this year.  We’d much rather that money stay with taxpayers and their families, especially during these times!”


The VITA Program is special because it offers students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom in the real world, while helping those in their local communities.

—Angela Bassani , Assistant Professor of Accounting at Penn State Scranton

One of Bassani’s favorite things about running the VITA Program is getting to watch her students come full circle.

Professors often work hard to prepare students for the real world, but they do not always get to actually witness them in action outside of the classroom. 

“For many of the students, it’s their first real foray into the accounting field. They often start the tax season quite nervous and unsure of themselves,” Bassani said. “It’s a wonderful experience to watch them witness how capable they truly are and to become confident in their abilities.”

Coles and McAvoy credit Bassani’s strong impact on them both in and outside of the classroom.

“Dr. Bassani has had a huge impact on my college career as an accounting concentration student because she has taught me so much relating to the accounting profession, but also simply life in general,” Coles said.

“It is so important to help the local population with their taxes,” McAvoy said. “Tax law, itself, is a convoluted jumble to most people with constant shifts and changes that people cannot be able to know at all times and be aware of how tax legislation can affect them in real time.”

Involvement in VITA is a great resume booster

VITA is a national program that has operated for over 50 years and is recognized by accounting and finance professionals in all parts of the country.

“Some of the past VITA interns have gone on to work for the “Big Four” accounting firms – Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ernst & Young and KPMG -- in Philadelphia and New York and have shared that VITA helped provide them with so many experiences to reflect back on during their recruitment interviews,” Bassani said. “They really felt that VITA helped to set them apart from intense competition as they sought employment after graduation.”  

The IRS VITA program has existed since the 1970’s. About 16 years ago, the United Way of Lackawanna and Wayne Counties noticed an article explaining that many residents in Northeastern Pennsylvania were missing out on earned income credits that they were eligible for, so they decided to get involved with a VITA Program to help area residents get the tax refunds they qualify for. All VITA volunteers and interns must take exams administered by the IRS to become certified to prepare taxes with the program.   

You don’t need an accounting background to get involved with VITA

Tanner Begin, a fourth-year student majoring in corporate communication and minoring in business administration, is also involved in the VITA Program.

“I heard from my friend Jordan Coles, one of the tax interns for this year, about VITA, and she mentioned that Dr. Bassani was interested in expanding the social media presence of the program,” Begin said. “After talking with Dr. Bassani, I decided that it would be an amazing opportunity to get involved and to help out in any way that I could.”

In his role, Begin has been in charge of building VITA’s social media presence from the ground up.

“The organization that operates the program, the United Way of Lackawanna, Wayne, and Pike Counties, has their own social media following, but I’m essentially starting separate Facebook and Instagram pages that are their own entities under the umbrella of the whole operation,” Begin said. “Mainly, I design graphics and/or promotional material to be posted online or printed for VITA, or I go on-sight to take pictures and to conduct content interviews.” Begin also creates consecutive social media posts ranging in topic from educational and promotional material, volunteer spotlights, and more.

Begin feels that being a corporate communication major has prepared him significantly for this role. “I feel like corporate communication covers so many topics such as techniques of internal/external communication, aspects of public relations, media ethics, and more,” he said. “I feel that my education has prepared me to be ready for anything in this social media role, and I feel that I am knowledgeable in so many areas that can lead me to be successful in understanding and growing the VITA Programs social media presence.”

Begin appreciates the skills he has learned in the classroom and his ability to apply them within the VITA Program.

“Learning about things like external communication or graphic design is one thing, but it’s a whole other thing to recognize and see the effects in person,” Begin said. “Seeing the graphics that I design end up in posts or in promotional flyers makes it all so much more real, and I feel like being able to apply what I’ve learned in aspects of my internship is allowing me to improve my skills further and is preparing me for success in a post-grad profession.”

Begin expressed his excitement for having the opportunity to give back to the local community and being able to raise awareness about the VITA Program.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many may think that the program or its resources may not be there anymore, but my goal is to challenge this and to say, ‘Hey! We’re here and we want to help you!’” Begin explained. “The VITA Program does so many good things and saves people so much money and aggravation when doing their taxes, and I’ll do anything that I can to spread the word.”