Personal Reflections on My VITA ExperienceNov. 16, 2020
By Cameron Wiles, BBA '20
Each year, millions of Americans are tasked with filing individual income tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Filing a tax return is a process that can be confusing, costly and burdensome, especially for lower-income individuals who may lack the available resources to file and who do not have a basic understanding of either the tax law or the filing process. During the first three and one-half months of each tax year, a drive down the poorest streets of cities across America reveals banners from loan sharks and used car lots advertising “instant refunds,” which take advantage of those desperately looking for ways to raise excess cash to pay overdue bills and purchase necessities. Fortunately, there are low cost—even free—programs for deserving taxpayers to file for and receive their refunds. One of the best such programs is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program which aims to assist taxpayers by establishing volunteer sites around the country where certified volunteers prepare and review tax returns free of charge.
Thousands of people each year volunteer millions of collective hours to help people in their communities comply with the filing requirements of the tax law. VITA sites can be found at high schools, community colleges, universities, libraries and community centers across the country. IRS.gov provides taxpayers an online locator tool to help find the closest VITA location and, since 1970, there has been active involvement by high school and college students volunteering their time to help those in need while providing these students a new perspective on the harsh realities some are facing within their own communities.
According to Marlayna Massey, the VITA Program at University High School (UHS) in Waco, Texas, is one of the largest student-run sites in the country. Through programs like VITA, UHS extends its students the opportunity to obtain a head-start on several possible career paths, allowing them to take challenging courses and obtain internships with many local businesses. Since 2004, the number of processed returns has increased steadily each year and now exceeds 1,200 returns per season.
Baylor University student involvement began under Brett Wilkinson, then a tax professor at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business, with the idea that high school students would interview client taxpayers and prepare their returns and Baylor accounting students would review the returns. The idea worked well for several years until Wilkinson left Baylor. In late 2018, Bill Thomas, another Baylor accounting professor, helped re-establish the relationship with UHS alongside four of his tax colleagues. Thomas recruited 27 Accounting majors to volunteer at VITA for the 2018 filing season in exchange for partial course credit in the federal income tax class in the accounting curriculum.
When I learned about this opportunity as an incoming tax student, I was quick to jump on board. I had been a VITA volunteer for three years in high school in Las Vegas, Nevada. I told Thomas that I had experience with VITA, and I composed a testimonial that he sent through the Baylor tax faculty to other Accounting majors encouraging them to participate in the program. During the 2018 filing season, I volunteered more hours at VITA than any other Baylor Accounting major. I knew I wanted to be a part of VITA at University High School once again for the 2019 filing season, taking on a much larger role by leading as the Baylor Student Coordinator. I worked closely with teachers at UHS to plan the program for the 2019 filing season. At the same time, I increased the number of Baylor volunteers by showing videos to the Accounting classes, recruiting 63 Baylor volunteers—nearly triple the number from the 2018 filing season.
The VITA program at University High School has Baylor students work alongside high school students and teachers, creating a mentorship dynamic. These Baylor students gain real-world tax experience and observe the economic realities of the Waco community and McLennan County. According to the 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 26.8 percent of Waco residents live in poverty. This statistic is higher than the rest of Texas, with a national rate of only 14.9 percent.
VITA in Waco exposed me to this alarming statistic, and it also gave me a newfound passion for service. I have been able to have conversations with numerous high school students about college and have shared my experiences at Baylor. Many of these students, if they attend college, will be the first in their families to do so. I have also learned many things from the teachers at University High School, and they have helped shape me into a much more service-minded and altruistic person.
The VITA program at University High School has now been in operation for 16 filing seasons and is expected to continue to thrive for years to come. This program has shaped me into a leader, mentor, and service-minded individual, and I am thankful for the opportunity to serve my community in this fashion.