By Katie Pritchett, Civic Engagement Coordinator, Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement
This summer Gabriel de la Torre will be taking sign language classes—and his unlikely inspiration was a spring semester accounting class.
As part of Brian Lendecky’s Accounting 366P class, de la Torre and 200 other University of Texas at Austinstudents helped file 18,310 tax returns for low-income residents, resulting in a total of $31,691,205 in refunds. Before students can make this significant impact on the community, Lendecky and his partner, Foundation Communities—a local non-profit that provides affordable homes and support services for thousands of low-income families—integrate training into the academic curriculum. Students learn about federal tax codes, socio-economic issues, housing and immigration policy, and economic development in preparation for volunteering at least 55 hours with the Community Tax Centers, part of the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program for low income filers.
During his service at the Community Tax Center, de la Torre encountered hundreds of clients, but one specific meeting left a lasting impression. He felt helpless as he waited with a client who was hearing impaired until her mother, who served as her translator, arrived. Despite the fact that de la Torre can fluently speak four languages, he realized he could not use those language skills to communicate with his client to complete her tax preparation. “I wanted to help her and couldn’t, and it made me realize that I had to do something about it.” The tax return eventually yielded a $2,100 refund.
The two women told de la Torre that despite financial need, they have set aside their returns over the last few years to save enough money for a cochlear implant. It was this meeting that inspired de la Torre, a senior majoring in International Business, to register for sign language classes. “I want to be able to help out and communicate with anybody that needs my help. I never would have guessed [this class] would change some part of me.”
Lendecky recognizes multiple benefits of service-learning, but he said, “The most important part of the learning process is actually applying your trade.”
Alex Bryan, a junior Accounting major, had a chance to apply what he learned by helping low-income residents navigate the intricacies of federal tax regulations. Clients who came to Bryan were dealing with issues such as employee misclassification or past tax returns with errors. “The exciting thing about these clients was that often we were able to help them beyond what they ever thought…it felt great to be able to help honest people who worked hard for their money be able to get some of it back.”
Jackie Blair, director of volunteer programs at Foundations Communities, said the impact on the community has been invaluable. “By volunteering their time to prepare taxes, students are saving our clients hundreds of dollars in tax preparation fees. This allows our clients to use their full refunds to go towards the things they need the most like paying bills, buying groceries and in some cases paying off debts.”
Another advantage of academic service-learning is the idea that it offers a learning experience that extends beyond the 40 acres. Students learn more about socio-economic and cultural differences within the local community by serving Austin residents. Senior Finance student, Jessica Baillargeon, met a single mother who raised six children in a two-bedroom duplex for 12 years. She held numerous jobs at once to make ends meet, but she always instilled the importance of education in her children—ensuring that they all attended college.
“Instead of applying for jobs, she told her kids to apply for scholarships for university. Her last daughter is about to graduate from UT this spring,” said Baillargeon. All of Gloria’s children have graduated debt-free.” She concluded, “This is not a story of sadness, but one of hope. You can overcome your struggles and current hardships through hard work and determination.”
On the final day of Lendecky’s class, students share significant impressions and reflections. There is evidence that students’ learning will extend well beyond the Spring 2013 semester. “Above all else I believe students have learned not to judge a book by its cover. Also that life is not black and white; there is a lot of gray. Service-learning is definitely instrumental in that,” Lendecky said.
This particular accounting class has been in partnership with Foundation Communities and the Community Tax Centers for eight years. The sustainability of the program rests with students’ continued commitment to put their learning into action. Blair said, “We absolutely could not help as many families as we do without this invaluable partnership with the University of Texas at Austin.”