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Classroom meets real world with VITA clinics

Apr 2, 2024
7 min Read
Molly Garriott
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In February, when most people hibernate with a good book or make their escape to warmer climates, Creighton’s VITA volunteers are in high gear. The students and faculty who participated in the IRS-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program showed up to the Mike and Josie Harper Center every Saturday in February to help qualifying clients file their yearly income tax.  

In addition to the five campus clinics, a small group also took it on the road to offer their services to residents of the Winnebago Indian Reservation the first weekend of the month. Between the two sites, Creighton students, on average, assist well over 400 clients annually.

Creighton accounting and finance students have a long, engaged history with VITA. In the early days of this association, students in the Beta Alpha Psi accounting honor society originally volunteered at local VITA sites. Participation grew, warranting the creation of campus clinics. Eventually, participation in VITA became a service-learning requirement of the upper-level accounting course, Federal Tax Accounting, taught for many years by Tom Purcell, PhD, CPA, John P. Begley Endowed Chair in Accounting at the Heider College of Business and long-time faculty moderator of Creighton’s VITA site.   

The course, required for all accounting majors and finance majors on the financial planning track, includes 16 hours of volunteering, though many students far exceed the requirement.  

The process is very thorough and professional. All students are required to undergo online training, and those helping Creighton’s international students receive additional instruction. Federal Tax Accounting students prepare the tax returns, which are then reviewed by senior accounting students and recent alumni. Accounting professors are also on hand to field questions and resolve problems. When necessary, Mark Munsterman, senior tax consultant with the IRS, provides technical support for IRS software and other issues. 

“As a group, we do great work and at no cost to the client,” says Purcell.  

“It has become a self-sustaining tradition,” Purcell continues, with former students returning to volunteer. In fact, Purcell received a text from a former student saying he was volunteering with VITA in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood. 

“Students come away with an appreciation that service takes many forms.”
— Tom Purcell, PhD, CPA, Begley Professor of accounting at the Heider College of Business

Promoting Professionalism 

Deyna Rouse, BSBA’00, MAC’23, associate professor of practice with the Department of Accounting and Business Intelligence and Analytics at the Heider College of Business, is another such alum. Rouse, to whom Purcell is passing the VITA baton, was a Beta Alpha Psi volunteer as an undergrad. She believes the VITA clinics are irreplaceable experiences.  

Professionally, students apply classroom theory to practice, learning how issues they have covered in their coursework show up on returns. Plus, Rouse adds, client interactions are “incredibly valuable skills” that cannot be taught in class. “When you sit across from a client and ask the right questions and offer solid advice, you gain confidence,” she says.  

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True to their Jesuit education, students also reflect on their experiences and overwhelmingly comment on how they appreciate the opportunity to use their skills to give back to their community and interact with people who may not have access to the kind of privilege they enjoy. 

“Students come away with an appreciation that service takes many forms,” Purcell says.  

“We can only go so far in the classroom, given our time constraints and the amount of material we must cover,” Rouse says. “VITA offers students a huge opportunity to have some skin the game, to go above and beyond a grade on their report cards while gaining professional development that involves real economic impact on clients.”  

Rewarding Work

Junior accounting major Noah Ryan and senior accounting and business intelligence and analytics double major Kate Lahsin were two of this year’s student co-coordinators, each clocking in well over 100 hours of service. Dakota Hedger and Breck O’Grady were the other two co-coordinators.   

These student leaders are responsible for planning and coordinating the clinics; arranging volunteer training and scheduling volunteer clinic attendance; interacting with off-campus public relations and news media; and meeting with Creighton staff to arrange for space, computer access, supplies, equipment and all the tools needed to run the clinics each week. Co-coordinators also resolve issues after clients leave the clinics, such as working with the IRS to resolve filing issues and providing important information to clients who are waiting for tax refunds.     

All the co-coordinators volunteered during their income tax course and took on more responsibility so they could serve as coordinators this year. As a junior, Lahsin served as a reviewer before accepting a co-coordinator role this year. Ryan will return next year as a co-coordinator. An important selling point in his participation was the opportunity to channel his major and career path toward service.  

“We see a need in the community and address it,” Ryan observes. “Hopefully, VITA plants a seed of service in other students that will continue to grow later in college and careers.” 

Lahsin says VITA has been eye-opening on many levels. The number of repeat clients underscores how important their work is. “Taxes can be daunting to a lot of people. We learn a lot from class about income taxes and are able to apply that knowledge to help others in the community who might not know as much about them,” she says. 

Plus, Ryan adds, VITA is a much-needed personal connection that is increasingly being lost as tax prep services have become so monetized.  

Lack of knowledge about the program’s existence and reticence are two hurdles Munsterman says he and site sponsors, like Creighton, are trying to overcome. Despite Creighton’s decades-long association with VITA, people remain unaware of its benefits. Or, Munsterman adds, they hear “volunteer” and “free” and think there is a catch.  

Munsterman says working with Nebraska’s VITA sites is the best part of his job. At Creighton, “students get real life experience with everyday people,” he says, “and you see it all – clients crying from relief and surprised by the time and patience their prepares offer, volunteers proactively offering advice for next year’s tax preparations.”  

“I am most proud of the ability to help individuals in need,” Munsterman continues.  

“We see a need in the community and address it. Hopefully, VITA plants a seed of service in other students that will continue to grow later in college and careers.”
— Noah Ryan, HCB junior, student co-coordinator of 2024 Creighton VITA clinic

Satisfied Clients 

Many Creighton VITA clients return year after year. Prior year returns are stored in an IRS secure database so a current return can be compared with a prior year. Some clients need amended returns for prior years, and some clients need to file returns for multiple years.  

In 2024, more than 100 volunteers logging over 2,300 total volunteer hours prepared 575 returns. Total federal refunds amounted to just north of $450,000, and state refunds just exceeded $200,000.  

David has attended the Creighton VITA clinics for more than a decade. What keeps him coming back? The multiple layers of review and the timely completion of the filing process.  

“Clients bring the necessary documentation, and their returns are filed during the consultation,” he says. “I find tax prep a daunting task. Using the VITA clinic, I know it will be done correctly, and the entire process is overseen by expert accounting faculty who are teaching the next generation of accountants.” 

“It’s been helpful to be able to afford to have high quality work done with somebody you can trust,” concurs Ann, a senior citizen who has availed herself to Creighton’s VITA program the last two years. “People in the community really need a program like this. The price is right, it’s professional, and you guys make it easy. You can’t go wrong!”  

“People in the community really need a program like this. The price is right, it’s professional, and you guys make it easy. You can’t go wrong!”
— Ann, 2024 Creighton VITA clinic client
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