Manning Students Volunteer to Help Low-Income Community Members File Taxes

A person sitting at a desk exchanges paperwork with a person sitting in a chair in an office.   Image by Ed Brennen
During a shift as a VITA intern at Community Teamwork in Lowell, junior business major Matthew Westhaver takes some paperwork from a client while helping her prepare her taxes.

By Ed Brennen

Tax Day is right around the corner, and empty chairs are hard to find in the waiting room at Community Teamwork in downtown Lowell.
Down the hall, in one of the nonprofit organization’s offices, Manning School of Business student Matthew Westhaver is going over tax forms with a woman while her young son watches a cartoon on his mom’s phone. In nearby offices, fellow business majors Syma Rukhsar and Beatriz Goncalves are getting ready for their next clients.
They are among nine UMass Lowell students who are volunteering their time to assist low-income individuals and families with their federal and state taxes this spring through paid internships with the Internal Revenue Services’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
“It’s nice to help people for free,” says Westhaver, a junior accounting student from Stoneham, Massachusetts. “And when someone gets a big refund, they’re so happy.”
In addition to making a positive impact in the community, students receive three credits by taking part in the internship program, which is coordinated by adjunct accounting faculty member Edgar Carter.
Asst. Prof. of Accounting Cody Lu recruits students in his Federal Income Taxes course for the internship, which he sees as a valuable way to practice what they learn in the classroom.
A person works on a laptop at a conference room table. There are white boxes piled on top of filing cabinets in the foreground. Image by Ed Brennen
VITA intern Syma Rukhsar, a senior business major from Lowell, waits for her next client on a recent Tuesday afternoon at Community Teamwork.

“Tax is such a practical and ‘learn-by-doing’ discipline, and a significant portion of our accounting students end up specializing in tax at accounting firms,” says Lu, who notes that employers like to see the VITA internship experience on a student’s résumé. “It’s an immediate conversation starter on the job market.”
Community Teamwork provides resources like VITA to more than 50,000 low-income people across Middlesex and Essex counties. People who make less than $64,000 a year, are disabled or have limited English skills are eligible for the program.
Last year, 410 individuals received free tax prep services at Community Teamwork. The average refund was $2,634 per household, which means more than $1 million was returned to the local economy through tax refunds and credits.
Student interns receive two months of training from Community Teamwork on things like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child and Family Tax Credit before becoming certified by the IRS in January.
“By the time February comes around, they’re ready to roll,” says Eric Rosario, Community Teamwork’s lead financial education coordinator for VITA.
Students are asked to do a minimum of 25 returns for the season — although UML students do “way more than that,” Rosario says. “They do an amazing job.” 
A person in glasses poses for a photo while sitting at an office desk and working on a laptop computer. Image by Ed Brennen
Beatriz Goncalves, a junior business major from Woburn, Massachusetts, says her VITA internship provides a possible path to an accounting career.

Goncalves, a junior finance student from Woburn, Massachusetts, volunteers about eight hours per week.
“I’d like to be an accountant in the future, maybe a CPA, and this is a great path to do that,” says Goncalves, who finds the work “very fulfilling.”
“People who come in for the first time, they’re like, ‘I never knew this was available.’ They spend money to file their taxes, and obviously they’re not in the best situation to do so. For the IRS to offer a free program is great,” she says.
Also interning this semester are business students Lentz Augustin, Riva Chatsman, Cindy Hua, Ryan Parks, Matthew Robotham and David Tettah.
For Westhaver, the internship has been a low-risk way to learn that he prefers the collaboration and group work of audit to the one-on-one work of tax.
“I’ve enjoyed the program, but tax isn’t for me,” says Westhaver, whose favorite part of the internship has been talking to retired clients. “They have interesting stories to tell about the industries they worked in and the life experiences they’ve had.”
Rukhsar, a senior accounting student from Lowell, was a tax intern last year at Baker Tilly US, where she prepared tax returns for partnerships, corporations and estates. She enrolled in the VITA internship to learn about personal taxes — while also helping people.
“This is new to me, but tax is something I might be interested in doing in my future,” says Rukhsar, who is continuing in the Manning School for her Master of Science in Accounting through the Bachelor’s-to-Master’s Program.
“It's fun meeting people from Lowell and seeing them get excited when they get a big refund in return,” she says. “That is just the best experience for me.”