It can be easy for some University of Richmond students to get used to the "Richmond bubble" and forget about the world outside of it. With the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, however, many accounting students have an opportunity to be exposed to what lies beyond the confines of the university.

“The world outside of the ‘Richmond bubble’ is very different,” senior Kayla Truong said. “Going through the VITA program these past two years has shown me some of the struggles that other families outside of the ‘Richmond bubble’ go through.

It is hard seeing someone with four dependents, four children that they have to take care of, and they make maybe less than $10,000 a year." 

According to the IRS website, the VITA program offers free tax help to “people who generally make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns.”

There are 13 VITA sites in Richmond located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools and other convenient locations, including UR Downtown in Richmond. This past semester, about 40 accounting students took part in the VITA program, according to UR registration records.

Accounting students who take the courses Federal Tax 1 or Federal Tax 2 in the fall do not need to participate in VITA, although accounting students who take the classes in the spring do, senior Samuel Groner said.

“I talked with some friends who had done the program, and I decided that I wanted to take the Federal Tax 1 class in the spring, just because I wanted to experience VITA, as it is a really interesting way to get applicable experience,” Groner said.

Although volunteering with VITA is mandatory in the spring, the hours students spend helping community members do their taxes counts as a half-credit class. This is not an easy half credit to get, however, as taking part in the VITA program is a big time commitment for students.The training session for the program is two days, with about five hours on a Friday and eight hours on a Saturday, Groner said. After completing the training, the students have to take the IRS certification test on their own.

“After that, it is really up to your own prerogative to do the hours of volunteering,” Groner said.

Students involved in the VITA program have to do 14 hours of volunteer work over the semester, and the hours must be completed before tax day, which is April 17 this year.

Although it is a large time commitment, many students said they thought the time was worth it because they had gained important knowledge about taxes and new perspectives on the world.

“Moving forward, there is a technical comfort, knowing how to do taxes,” junior Chris Selwood, an accounting student who is also part of the program this semester, said. “They are not scary at all to me. I am even doing my own this year. 

"Personally outside of just doing taxes, I really gained a lot of appreciation for the people who come to VITA sites, because you are talking to people who make less than $10,000 a year, and just talking to them about their lives.”

Truong said she had learned how to interact with people in a more sympathetic and nonjudgmental way because the program had put her in a unique situation where she knew her clients’ personal information and had to be careful about how she discussed their situations with them.

“You see that everyone has a different story,” Groner said. 

Contact features writer Anna Ricci at anna.ricci@richmond.edu.