By Tina Underwood

Editor’s note: This story was posted prior to the federal government’s announcement that the 2019 tax filing deadline has been extended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sydney Tanner, a student at Sullivan Foundation partner school Furman University, looks forward to the time of year most people dread—tax season. For the third year in a row, Tanner is volunteering with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), a free tax service administered by the United Way for individuals and families who make $60,000 or less.

Her participation was required for the first two years as part of intermediate financial accounting and advanced accounting, taught by Sandy Roberson, professor of business and accounting.

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This year, Tanner says she’s doing it because “I enjoy giving back to the community.”

And for some clients, the service represents more than a nice gesture; it’s empowering. Tanner remembers a client who was clearly frustrated in her failed attempt to file her own tax return.

“Understandably, she showed up at the VITA site very annoyed,” Tanner said. “But by the end of the visit, she was smiling and full of energy. We were able to correct the error and let her know what was wrong, giving her the tools to prepare her own return the following year. For me, it was satisfying to see the taxpayer feel empowered to take that on.”

Many other Upstate South Carolina individuals and families have no doubt encountered similar experiences. Since Furman first began supplying VITA volunteers in 2009, 360 students have participated, donating more than 5,200 hours through 2019, Roberson said.

To become certified by the Internal Revenue Service, students must grind out scores of practice returns and complete in-class and supplemental training to pass three exams—standards of conduct, intake/interview and quality review, and the basic (or advanced) preparer exam. While taxpayers benefit from the free service, she says the students may benefit even more.

another photo of Sydney Tanner

Sydney Tanner

“I hope that in addition to the professional and discipline competencies, VITA helps prepare students for public lives as citizens, members of communities and professionals in a diverse, democratic society,” Roberson said. “The program cultivates skills of engaged citizenship and challenges them to think about and articulate their civic role as educated professionals in their community.”

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Roberson says the experience is “transformative” for students who have never directly interacted with the public outside of Furman. “I see that in their reflective writings, which can be very moving, when they relate how their view of community or themselves changes as a result of service.”

Tanner, of Wylie, Texas, will intern with Deloitte’s Multistate Tax Services group in Charlotte, North Carolina, following graduation. In the fall, she’ll begin working on her master’s degree in professional accounting at the University of Texas at Austin. But she won’t soon forget her time with VITA.

“My participation with VITA is what really opened my eyes to pursuing the field of taxation as a career path in the first place,” Tanner said.

This article was edited slightly from the original story appearing on the Furman University website.

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