Helzberg School Students Lend Skills to Tax Prep

Tuesday, March 27, 2018
1040 tax form

As Tax Day inches closer, plenty of people in the Kansas City area can rest a little easier.

Students from the Helzberg School of Management recently volunteered their time at Kansas City’s Operation Breakthrough, an early childhood education and resource center serving Kansas City’s families in need, as part of an accounting practicum that put their education to work helping clients prepare their tax returns.

It’s a service learning project that Jamie Shipman, J.D., assistant professor of accounting in the Helzberg School of Management, said Tony Tocco, Ph.D., professor of accounting, had led for years. The free tax preparation is itself part of a larger offering from the Internal Revenue Service, administered locally by the United Way of Greater Kansas City.

“The students do two weeks of training on the key rules and procedures,” he said. “Once they’re done with that, they start seeing clients, usually once a week for a total of four weeks.”

Shipman estimated the students, over the course of their volunteer work, helped between approximately 70 and 90 taxpayers prepare their returns. Each visit was a little different, and Shipman said he thought the experience challenged the students to not only sharpen their accounting skills, but also their face-to-face skills with people from sometimes very different life experiences.

“I think it takes them out of their comfort zone a little bit,” he said.

It’s a process that senior accounting major Kye Denker said gave him confidence in his own abilities in accounting and a new understanding of how the principles he learned in the classroom would be applied in a professional setting. But that was far from the only thing he’ll take away from the experience.

“The lessons I learned were less about tax and more about people,” he said. “This helped me learn some things about myself and showed me that I want to work in an environment like Operation Breakthrough, where I get to help people and see the impact I can make on their lives.”

Having been through the practicum once already, senior accounting major Claire Witte said she was already comfortable with the mechanics of walking a client through the preparation of their tax returns.

“I tried to engage each client in a conversation to learn more about them and also sharpen the communication skills I will be needing in my career later on,” she said. “Tax returns can be daunting and scary – especially when there is a lot of money on the line for these people — but when I was engaged in a conversation with the person whose name was on the return, both of us felt more relaxed and enjoyed the little time we spent together rather than feeling like we were simply checking a to-do off their list.”

Generally, the returns were fairly simple to put together. But it was important, Witte said, to pay attention to the details to maximize the possible return, because that return can represent a significant portion of the annual income for the taxpayers they helped. She said she remembers one appointment in particular that emphasized both the life lessons she learned and why this kind of service was important and fulfilling.

“One of the last returns I did was for an older woman who told me all about her grandchildren and great grandchildren, her church, her medications and her friends,” Witte said. “I got to listen to her stories and jokes and toward the end of preparing her return, I mentioned in passing that she would not be paying for my work. She excitedly gasped and asked me several times if she was really getting her taxes done for free. She was smiling throughout our conversation, but really brightened up after hearing this.”