In 2017, Seton Hill students and alumni helped individuals from Westmoreland County – and around the world - file more than 1,000 returns, for an estimated $2 million in refunds. These current and former accounting and business majors participated in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, an initiative of the IRS that is coordinated in this area through Westmoreland Community Action.
“At the VITA program, we prepare individual income tax returns for those who make less than $54,000 per year,” says senior accounting major Mara Willette. “This demographic frequently includes senior citizens and low-income families, as well as other individuals who benefit from free tax preparation services. It is an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to use the skills that we have learned at Seton Hill, honed through training at the VITA program, to be able to help the Greensburg community.”
Seton Hill’s Accounting Program requires students to participate in two internships. While the program doesn’t endorse the VITA Program over any other experiential learning opportunity, Assistant Professor of Business Gary Hypes thinks it’s so worthwhile he has all of the students in his Principles of Taxation course go through the VITA certification process with the IRS.
“Employers know the value of this experience. They say ‘I’m glad to see VITA on your resume.’ ”
Once certified, students can elect to participate in a local VITA program, like the one offered through Westmoreland Community Action. In addition to supporting the Seton Hill tradition of community outreach and support, Professor Hypes likes that accounting majors who participate in VITA get a much broader and comprehensive experience than that of traditional accounting internships by “dealing firsthand with clients.”
“Face to face,” agrees VITA Program Coordinator Robin Hypes, “whether the clients are happy, mad or sad.”
Students aren’t daunted by the challenges. In fact, once they get involved in VITA as an intern they often come back as a volunteer in later years.
“This is actually my second year,” says senior accounting major Emily DePalma. “In my junior year I participated in VITA at Westmoreland Community Action as my accounting internship. During that year I was certified in the Advance and Foreign Student levels… This year I actually got the opportunity to be in charge of running the International Student VITA program on campus. We ended up successfully helping several students from varying countries prepare and file their federal, state, and local tax returns.”
Program Coordinator Robin Hypes, herself a student in Seton Hill’s Hospitality and Tourism Program, oversees all four county service sites for VITA. During the 2016 tax season, she says, all but two of the volunteers and interns that worked for her had Seton Hill connections.
In addition to 120 hours devoted to helping clients, the students who are completing Accounting Program internships with VITA are also required to complete academic projects associated with the internships. This year, one student intern worked on a video featuring a VITA client; another intern is analyzing data for reporting purposes.
“Employers know the value of this experience,” says Professor Hypes. “They say ‘I’m glad to see VITA on your resume.’ ”
“Before I started preparing taxes for VITA in January I felt like tax was the weakest part of my accounting knowledge,” says senior accounting major Pam Oswald. “The amount of taxes that I prepared every time I was at VITA provided more experience then I could have gained anywhere else. I can't even count how many clients were whole heartedly grateful for the service that VITA provides to people that would otherwise have to pay for their taxes.”
Photo above: (left to right) Mara Willette, Robin Hypes, Emily DePalma and Assistant Professor Gary Hypes.