Vita provides free tax preparation services. | Photo Illustration by Karen Garcia

Karen Garcia
Special to Mustang News

The first time that Cal Poly business professor Hilda Zacarias prepared a tax return, she was a freshman at Fresno State University in a class she had to talk her way into. 

She prepared it in a JCPenney store in downtown Fresno.

“It was a single mom who qualified to earn income tax credit for the first time and when she saw that she was going to get back $2,200, she started to cry,” Zacarias said, “so of course I started crying too.”

That’s when Zacarias realized the kind of impact she wanted to make in her community. 

She now talks about her experiences and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) program to her students as well as other classrooms.

VITA is a program that provides a free tax service for people who earn $53,000 or less.

Various organizations and universities, including Cal Poly, train accounting students to prepare tax returns. 

“What this is about is to inspire people to see that even accountants make a difference in the lives of your community not just a social workers or public safety folks,” Zacarias said.

Julissa Aguilar, senior business major, was one of those students that Zacarias inspired.

She signed up for the program because she wanted to help people.

“It sounded like a great opportunity to do that for my senior project because it seemed like it would be really fun to help people, and it’s a real world application so it’s also a great opportunity,” Aguilar said.

She has been able to prepare tax returns for students, families and single parents.

Aguilar said that not only is she able to help others but the program provides her with valuable experience.

“You’re helping them by doing this but you’re also helping yourself,” she said, “Doing this program is giving me the experience of how to work with clients and talk to people in order to prepare their taxes.”

Ultimately Aguilar joined the program with the expectation of not only helping her community but also gaining experience for her future career.

The VITA program at Cal Poly began in 1992 and has been sponsored by the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Cal Poly accounting department.

Zacarias said that the IRS has all the instruction material for the students and provides the tax preparation software that allows the students to prepare income taxes.

After the student has prepared the income taxes, the return is then reviewed one last time by local certified tax professionals.

Zacarias said, Cal Poly supports the Central Coast VITA efforts by sending students to volunteer at the Cal Poly site as well as in Santa Maria, Allan Hancock College, Grover Beach and Paso Robles.

Zacarias said that more than 100 students have joined the Vita program for their senior project, the highest number the program has seen.

Levi Satterthwaite, a senior business major and media relations representative for VITA, also joined the program for his senior project. But he has taken the responsibility for media outreach.

Satterthwaite was attracted to the program because Zacarias went to his classroom and inspired him to join VITA through her testimonials of community service.

“She visited my federal taxation class and really got me excited with her stories and anecdotes of when she would help people with their taxes,” he said.

This was a feeling of fulfilment that Satterthwaite wanted to experience for himself.

“A lot of these people are living on not a whole lot of money and when you get them a refund, see the look in their eyes, it’s amazing and I experienced that first hand,” he said, “It’s pretty awesome.”

Satterthwaite said that VITA not only taught him through a real world situation, but he also gained personal skills that would help him with his future career.

He said he would recommend VITA to a student looking to fulfill their senior project while gaining a fulfilling experience. 

“I was a little nervous at first because I didn’t have the confidence in myself to prepare tax returns, but I would say dig in and go in head first,” he said.

If VITA is used for fulfilling the senior project requirement or for the experience written in the section of a resume, VITA organizers hope to bring students the experience of helping the community.

Tax season is coming to an end April 15, but for students interested in being a part of the program next year, should visit VITA’s site.

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