By Ed Brennen
student Ervin Caushi wakes up at 5 a.m. — before his two kids are up and before he has to get ready for work at Middlesex Savings Bank — and starts doing income taxes.
He’s not doing his family’s taxes, however. He’s doing them for people who qualify for free help from the Internal Revenue Services’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA
“The people who use the program are from low-income households, or maybe they’re elderly or have a disability, which makes you feel a little more involved,” Caushi says. “You understand that they’re waiting for that refund, so you really want to get the maximum out of it as quickly as you can.”
Caushi and three other Manning School of Business
students — Amy Bui, Eunice Clifton and Gillian Inglis — are working as VITA interns this semester as part of a new partnership with Community Teamwork
. The Lowell-based nonprofit organization provides resources, such as the VITA program, to more than 50,000 low-income people across Middlesex and Essex counties.
“It’s a valuable experience for any student, whether they intend to embark on a career as a CPA, or even to continue providing a community service in this way,” says Edgar Carter
, an adjunct accounting faculty member and coordinator of the three-credit internship program.
While UMass Lowell students have volunteered as VITA tax preparers through Community Teamwork in the past
, this is the first year they have done so as part of a formal internship program, according to Bonnie Greenwood ’05, director of the organization’s Financial Education Center.
“We’re really excited to have them as part of our VITA team and making that connection with the community,” says Greenwood, a UML business alumna from Dracut, Massachusetts, who joined Community Teamwork in February 2021. “It allows students to apply what they’re learning, and it’s a great experience to put on their résumé.”
Last year, Community Teamwork helped more than 400 individuals with income below $58,000 file their taxes and receive over $1 million in refunds and credits. Greenwood says the UML partnership has boosted the volunteer ranks from about 10 to 15 this year, and they had completed close to 120 returns as of early March.
Before the pandemic, volunteers met with clients and prepared returns in person at Community Teamwork’s offices. Now, clients can drop off their documents or upload them to a secure online portal, where a site coordinator from Community Teamwork assigns them to the volunteers, who are able to work on them remotely at any time.
“Once I get notification of a new client, I get all excited. I start entering all the information I can,” says Clifton, a junior transfer student from Northern Essex Community College with a concentration in accounting.
Originally from Mexico, Clifton says the internship has taught her a lot about U.S. tax law.
“And you’re helping people, which is pretty cool,” she says.
Bui, a junior from Northborough, Massachusetts, with a concentration in management information systems
, was unaware of the VITA program before the internship. She hopes to return as an intern next year.
“It’s helpful for my personal experience, to apply on my own taxes,” says Bui, a transfer student from Quinsigamond Community College.
To qualify for the internship, students must have taken Financial Accounting I. They also have to complete an online IRS training program and pass a qualifying exam. Greenwood says the fact that some UML students become IRS-certified as an optional part of their accounting coursework gives them a leg up as volunteers.
“Instead of rushing to get certified, they can really focus on understanding the process of working with us,” she says.
Caushi, who lives in Natick, Massachusetts, works full-time as a senior banking specialist and is taking classes online toward a certificate in accounting
. He says he wouldn’t have been able to do the internship in person.
“This virtual way of working is very convenient for me. I can wake up at 5 a.m., feel fresh and start working on returns,” says Caushi, who earned a finance degree in his native Albania in 2013. The accounting certificate from UML will enable him to take the CPA exam and go on for a master’s degree in accounting.
Greenwood hopes to see the internship program grow to around 10 volunteers in coming years.
"As an alum, it’s great to see,” she says. “But it’s also great for our community.”