Clayton State University has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for its leadership in developing programs in interfaith/community service – the only university in Georgia to be so-honored as part of the 2014 Presidential Honor Roll With Distinction.
Partnering Academics and Community Engagement (PACE) focuses on student engagement through community projects that enhance learning. This Plan is aligned with our institutional Mission of cultivating an “…environment of engaged, experienced-based learning, enriched by active community service, that prepares students of diverse ages and backgrounds to succeed in their lives and careers” and Strategic Plan emphasis on providing students with an “engaged, experienced-based learning, enriched by active community service.”
“When they’re actively doing tax returns, they blossom.”
Now, maybe one doesn’t typically link the function of doing a federal income tax return with blossoming, or with making dreams real, but the speaker in this case is Clayton State University Associate Professor of Law Dr. Judith Ogden, and the case in point is the University’s longest-running community service initiative, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, hosted by the College of Business.
VITA is a national program that provides tax support for certain eligible taxpayers. The program, which has been in existence for more than 40 years, is also, as indicated by Ogden who directs the Clayton State VITA, an empowering experience for Clayton State students. Each year for the past 24 years, Clayton State accounting students have volunteered their time and efforts, providing the public with free tax preparation services and, in Ogden’s words, blossoming in the process.
It’s a program that benefits both the taxpayers and the public because, as Ogden points out, the student volunteers are provided with extensive IRS training and testing beforehand, enabling them to ensure that taxpayers will have their tax returns filled out accurately and timely and receive the tax credits they qualify for, and, at the same time, further educating the students.
“They’ve already taken an income tax class,” noted Ogden of the student volunteers. “They’ve studied all the forms and basics of tax preparation in class, but they’re not really doing it.
“They always say how much they’ve learned.”
And, the learning process isn’t completely limited to tax preparation. Student VITA volunteers also learn interviewing skills, critical thinking skills (helpful in puzzling out tax questions), software skills and computer skills as well.
“They develop a sense of confidence in dealing with clients that they wouldn’t have if they were just taking classes and had never worked with people,” explains Ogden. “They also know tax law a lot better. Sometimes the answer is not in the book when you’re dealing with real people.
“It gives our students hands-on experience, and provides a valuable service to the public. We have taxpayers who return every year.”
Ogden also points out an additional, long-term benefit for the students. Not only do they develop confidence in dealing with clients, but the experience makes them much more comfortable in approaching an accounting firm after they graduate Clayton State.
“They’re now better at getting and keeping a job,” she says of her VITA volunteers, noting that she’s worked with VITA for nine years at Clayton State, and 16 years overall.
One of 2014’s VITA volunteers is the president of the Clayton State Accounting Club, Garron Barrett. A senior accounting major from Stone Mountain, Ga., Barrett notes that, while he’s learned a lot of complex tax codes in class, “it was a great experience to talk to people, to engage with them.”
“Every tax situation is different, you have to figure out every part of the tax return,” he says. “You can’t flip to the back to the book to see the answer.”
While going “live” does provide the VITA volunteers with an empowering experience, Barrett also notes that their service also helps the taxpayers.
“By applying what we know in a real situation we can inform the taxpayers,” he explains. “We can also help the taxpayers learn about filling out their forms in the future.
“It’s a learning environment for everyone.”
Not surprisingly, Barrett says his experience with VITA has been a positive one for all parties, and this kind of service is something he would like to do in the future.