UNI students make a difference, one tax return at a time

UNI students make a difference, one tax return at a time

Annie Feldman prepares tax returns as part of VITA


There isn’t much more fulfilling for Jeff Theisen (‘23) than helping people, seeing them smile and accepting a firm handshake. And that’s exactly the experience he gets working weekly with the University of Northern Iowa’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, run through the Wilson College of Business.

The program helps those who make $64,000 or less in yearly income, senior citizens, persons with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers file tax returns. Hosted once a week on Wednesdays during tax season, VITA has been around for half a century. Accounting students within the Wilson College of Business – students like Theisen – become certified and partner with community members to file taxes, all with the help of faculty advisers.

“You see the smile on their face and the gratitude they have, and you know you made a difference,” said Theisen, a post-graduate student in the accounting program who is set to complete his CPA certification this semester. He earned his undergraduate degree in accounting and finance this past December. “That’s probably what makes me feel the best.”

Annie Feldman (‘24), another student volunteer, agrees that helping and interacting with clients is one of her favorite parts of the program. But another very important aspect is the real-world experience she and other students receive, both in client conversation and tax preparation.

A typical session takes about an hour. Clients arrive, make sure they have the necessary tax documents and then sit down with a preparer. Students walk through the process with the client, and when the return is finished, a faculty adviser reviews the tax return before it is e-filed.

“It’s such a good experience being a preparer because I get to use tax software and prepare real returns,” said Feldman, who is also working on completing her CPA certification. “Additionally, it's been cool to meet people in the community I usually wouldn't interact with. You really get a sense that you're helping them because taxes can be confusing, and doing that by yourself can be overwhelming."

One of Theisen's most memorable clients was an international student. Although they are subject to similar tax rules as citizens, there are minor differences due to their visa status and whether they earned income in the United States.

“That was a challenge for me because I had never seen anything like that,” Theisen said. So, I was able to draw from some background knowledge I had from classes and training and also learned through it.”

For students considering the VITA program, Feldman and Theisen offer their endorsement. They highlight the program's ability to illuminate one's accounting career path, enhance one's resume and contribute to the Cedar Valley community. The program's benefits extend far beyond the classroom, providing students with a unique opportunity to make a difference while honing their professional skills.

“If you’re unsure about what you want to do in accounting, whether you want to go the tax route, definitely do the VITA program,” Theisen said. “You’ll get to experience the real work of preparing tax returns, and you’ll see firsthand if that’s what you want to do when you leave UNI.”