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Friday, April 20, 2018 - 10:00am

As the sun sets on tax season, many members of Westchester County reaped the benefits of their tax returns without the last-minute cost of most filing services  all thanks to a Mercy College professor and a team of student, professor, and alumni volunteers.

2018 marks the third year Mercy College has partnered with the IRS for its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, hosting free tax preparation services to low-income households at the College’s Dobbs Ferry and Bronx campus sites. While only so many in the community are aware of the program, fewer know how the work of students, alumni and professors volunteering their weekends makes it possible.

Associate professor of accounting and accounting program chairperson, Denise Stefano, oversees the program alongside Adjunct Professor and IRS VITA Program Liaison, Rudolph Aikens, who helped Stefano found the program (at Mercy College) five years ago. Stefano and Aikens coordinate faculty members and adjunct professors alongside student and alumni volunteers each year, overseeing a two-day training program (Link & Learn Taxes, set forth by IRS standards) run by adjunct professors, Sonia Hollies and Constance Crawford. This year, the program trained roughly 45 accounting and business students, with nearly half of them going on to become certified as VITA tax preparers. It is these student volunteers who make the program possible, according to Stefano.

“For students who come to volunteer on the site it’s not just about getting the skills to do tax prep, it’s also about getting that experience communicating with clients, which is very, very important when they go out into the business world,” said Stefano. “Also, their giveback to the community, and their volunteerism, having that really builds up their resume. All of the major corporations and major accounting firms know about the VITA program.”

Among the alumni and professors giving back, Adjunct Professor Nkong Tankeng ’16, acted as the Dobbs Ferry site coordinator along with Hollies and undergraduate alumnus Jeremy Morris ’17. Aikens, and site coordinators Ruth Cedeno and Roger Wolf, operated the Bronx Campus, as both sites worked towards the IRS quota of 140 returns prepared. Despite early worries of coming up short, Stefano reported that Mercy’s VITA program actually processed roughly 165 returns this year, making Mercy eligible for a full $3,000 grant from the Westchester Community Opportunity Program (WestCOP), the IRS’ main grant recipient.

As a part of the Westchester consortium of tax sites, Mercy’s Dobbs Ferry VITA site (where the College’s volunteer tax prep began three years ago) is run out of the School of Business office suite in Victory Hall. The Bronx Campus joined as a VITA tax prep site two years ago. Each year volunteers alternate weekends from February through the April tax filing deadline to meet with members of the Dobbs Ferry and Bronx communities and prepare their taxes for site coordinators to review, approve, and file. Those who met the IRS qualifications had their returns prepared for free to the benefit of a coordinated team and one-on-one attention with tax preparers, many of whom are multi-lingual.

“I think what Mercy benefits from is it has a diverse population of students and instructors, and then that helps with the fact that the clientele is also very diverse,” said Hollies. “So you get people from Africa, you get people from Latin America, South America that speak Spanish, and a lot of Africans speak French, a lot of Eastern European. I think to have such a diverse population helps with the fact that the community is diverse, and so usually there’s someone [at the site] that can communicate with one of the clients and answer their questions.”

The program, as both Stefano and Hollies stressed, has impacted its student body as much as the community, as volunteers gain practical tax prep experience working with clients, a stronger resume, a sense of the importance of volunteerism, and in some cases, the chance to work alongside experienced alumni who open the doors to internships and even jobs. Alumna Natasa Saric ’17 entered the program last year as a student volunteer when she met Hollies, the Vice President and Chief Tax Officer for Conduent, Inc. in New Jersey. After working closely together as site coordinator and volunteer respectively, Saric went on to intern for Conduent where she now works full-time in the tax department, joining Hollies as a colleague  only one example of several Stefano cited as to how the VITA program improves the lives of its volunteers as much as its clients.

“By volunteering as a VITA tax preparer you really gain free tax training, you gain applicable skills to develop [a] career, you gain experience while working one-on-one with clients,” said Saric, “but what’s really important is you learn about tax preparation rules, which can lead eventually to a job, with public or private organizations, which really happened to me.”

Watch here for more about the VITA Program.