By C. Aileen Blaine
As the end of tax season lurks around the corner, first-time filers may find themselves uncertain or nervous of how to correctly approach the process. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program at Youngstown State University helps to alleviate some of those fears, especially those of international students.
VITA is a national program under the Internal Revenue Service, and it provides tax assistance to individuals who qualify. According to the VITA webpage hosted by the IRS, those who qualify for help in tax return preparation include “people who generally make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities, the elderly and limited English-speaking taxpayers.” At the university, volunteers assist with income tax preparation and electronic filing.
Ray Shaffer is the coordinator of YSU’s VITA site in Williamson Hall. He said volunteers at the university are certified and know how to complete nonresident tax forms for international students, such as Form 8843.
“Our students who prepared the taxes go through extensive training and are certified by the IRS to prepare tax returns,” Shaffer said. “Paid preparers who are not [certified public accountants] or enrolled agents do not even have that type of requirement.”
Currently, there are 30 registered student volunteers, including five Master of Accountancy students. The participants earn 3 credit hours toward the semester, similar to an internship.
“They get an opportunity to do real taxes for real people, something you can’t do in a textbook or class; they improve communication skills by talking directly with taxpayers to prepare the returns — and taxpayers get their taxes done for free,” Shaffer said. “Everybody wins!”
Judith Guerrero Huerta, senior accounting major, first volunteered with the program last year, but operations were shut down midway due to the pandemic.
“We ended up coming up with a self-serve kind of thing — like TurboTax, but just for foreign students,” Guerrero Huerta said. “But [there’s] training that you need in order to complete these forms, they’re so confusing. I can’t even imagine how that turned out.”
This year, to maintain COVID-19 safety, the program uses a drop-off and pickup service, where tax filers leave their materials for volunteers to prepare and return to approve the e-filing of the return.
However, Shaffer said, “It takes much longer and is more challenging because we must call taxpayers with questions and results, and many taxpayers do not answer.”
Guerrero Huerta said the program helped her learn through hands-on experience and provided her with the opportunity to meet new and interesting people.
“You’re able to learn a whole lot of history,” she said. “You’re able to see different perspectives. There’s a lot of different types of people out there that have lived all over the world that have all these amazing stories.”
For those who may have qualms about filing taxes, Shaffer offered encouraging words.
“It is not a scary thing — we just follow the tax laws and prepare the tax returns,” he said.
Appointments remain for international students only on Saturday, March 27 and Saturday, April 3. To schedule an appointment, call 330-941-2507. For concerns regarding needed materials, contact Nancy O’Hara at 330-971-3084.