By Song My Hoang
Adjunct Professor of Economics Mary O’Keefe has supervised the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program at Union for 10 years. The service runs on Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Kenney Community Service Center.
O’Keefe is a public policy economist who teaches ECO-391: “Income Tax Policy and Practice.”
There are a total of nine student volunteers for the VITA Program this year.
O’Keefe manages IRS-certified student volunteers who prepare and file free tax returns for low-income families within the Schenectady community.
Schenectady locals use VITA at Union because it is an alternative to paying a tax preparer, who may charge them a large sum of money.
“The tax code is incredibly complex. Our taxpayers juggle with their jobs, family and even schooling,” stated O’Keeffe.
She said that the families’ taxes are more complicated compared to those of middle-income families, and these taxpayers are more likely to be audited.
Every tax return is prepared by one student and quality reviewed by another student. Then, the original student will explain the tax-return process to the taxpayer. O’Keefe reviews all the tax returns before sending them in.
O’Keefe takes pride in her student volunteers. She believes that the volunteers have used their knowledge about taxes to empower taxpayers and allow taxpayers to understand their tax returns.
“Though the volunteering service is a big challenge, it is an incredibly rewarding experience,” O’Keefe commented.
She is impressed by how the student volunteers help taxpayers feel comfortable sharing personal details about their lives. For example, they need to ask sensitive questions, such as if the taxpayer’s child died at any point during the year, in order to file a tax return to claim the child as a dependent.
Taxpayers who use VITA to file their taxes are satisfied with the service. A married couple came in to file their tax return using VITA at Union for their 10th year in a row. They both affirmed, “We are very happy with this service. We are happy customers and this is why we keep coming back every year!”
The process to become a student volunteer is stringent. On the first day of Economics 391, students are required to pass an IRS basic-level exam. During their third week, they need to pass an IRS advanced-level exam.
O’Keefe mentioned that the students who survive this process form a capable group. “I love writing recommendation letters for them because I can give employers relevant information about the students’ job skills,” she added.
A VITA student volunteer, Tuan Nguyen ’16, wanted to take a class in public finance with O’Keefe and get the chance to help the Schenectady community.
At first, he was rather scared of dealing with other people’s money. “You don’t want to make a small mistake that can result in a significant loss in their returns. But after a while, when you get the hang of it, the job becomes so much fun,” he commented.
He continued, “You meet with people, listen to their stories and work closely to figure the right number.”
Nguyen enjoys working in big groups to dig into the guide books to find a good deal for their customers in order to give money back to them.
He shared his most meaningful experience as a student vlunteer.
“When a customer told me that she got more money back than last year due to a credit in green energy that I found for her, I felt like my job was meaningful because I could get the stress out of some people and make them happy.”
Nguyen feels that he and his classmates are making an impact on the Schenectady community.
“We definitely want to make life easier for the lower-income community in Schenectady. Tax return is truly a nightmare for some people, especially when they don’t really understand it,” he said.
Nguyen concluded, “Their lives are hard already, so some look forward to this return the whole year. We understand that and try to make the process as easy and relaxed as possible. We also try to get as much money as customers deserve back to them. That means a lot to these taxpayers.”