A bright spot in tax season

The woman was hugging Makenzie Beam with tears running down her face. The two hadn’t met before that day, but in a single hour, Beam had made a significant difference by crunching a few numbers on the woman’s tax return.

“She doesn’t make much money and has a mentally disabled, adult daughter who still lives with her,” said Beam ‘14 (Harrisonburg, Va.). “I told her she was getting $1,000 more back than last year and she started crying and hugging me. She said she had been praying for help because she couldn’t afford to pay to have someone look out for her daughter while she was at work.”

Each spring, Furman’s accounting professors offer intermediate accounting, a course that includes 15 hours of community service with the United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) service. The program works like a professional tax service, ensuring participants receive all of their eligible tax credits and deductions.

Furman’s business and accounting department decided to add this requirement as a way of encouraging students to become ethical and responsible professionals. In addition to the service, professors ask students to write reflections about what the program means and what they learned from it.

“We ask them to answer the question, ‘How shall I live and what is my responsibility to the community?,’” associate accounting professor Sandy Roberson said. “They have skills that others don’t have, and we want them to realize the difference they can make in the community.”

The students begin their volunteer work by going through a training program and passing an exam–a process that can take six additional hours of study-time outside of class. Once they start doing returns, it’s more than just inputting numbers. The students interview each client to develop a rapport and sense of trust.

“You get people who are hesitant to talk to you because you represent a government entity that takes your money,” said William Crooks ‘14 (Cincinnati, Ohio). “You just converse and find something in common. It’s a very personal experience seeing someone’s finances and you have to have a level of trust. It’s a lot of responsibility.”

Furman is a service-oriented community and many of the students involved in the tax assistance program make a habit of volunteering. But the more they learned about the program, the more they saw how they could donate more than just their time.

“When you have a special skill, you need to make sure you use it,” Beam said. “The people we help don’t have the same accounting skills, and the service can come at a hefty price. Usually 10 percent of their deduction would go to a paid tax service.”

Not only was the program a chance for students to give back to the community, it was a way for them to gain technical, organizational, and communication skills, as well as work in a professional environment.

These skills are critical to students who want a career in accounting, but are also important to other students on campus. In fact, students outside the business and accounting department have volunteered with the program.

“It’s a great resume builder,” said Mike MacGuidwin ‘13 (Washington, D.C.). “I got an internship in Atlanta with a public accounting firm and got into seven grad schools, including my No. 1 choice. Furman’s accounting majors are very-well rounded because the professors emphasize programs like this.”

MacGuidwin is in his second year of volunteering with the program. He’s one of many students who have continued to volunteer even though it’s no longer required. But it’s not the resume building or even the real-world skills that keep students coming back. It’s feeling they get when they help someone in need.

Just ask Beam.

“The last woman I helped said she didn’t know what she would do without this program,” said Beam. “She’s always gone there and had a Furman student do her return.”