Student volunteers assist community with tax returns

Student volunteers help prepare and file tax returns for low-income residents at no cost.

Even University of South Carolina School of Law tax professor and expert Tessa Davis admits tax season can be an intimidating and stressful time. That’s why she says the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program is such an important service to the community.
VITA is an IRS managed program that provides free tax preparation by certified volunteers for low income persons as well as senior citizens. The School of Law has participated in VITA for 25 years, offering tax assistance to the public twice a week each February and March. This year, 17 law student volunteers prepared 122 tax returns and filed 98. In addition to South Carolina returns, they also prepared returns for individuals from Minnesota, New York, North Carolina and Georgia.
“VITA is a great way that we, as a state institution, can model the importance of public service,” says Davis. “It also gives us an opportunity to interact with our community.”
The service is part of the school’s Pro Bono Program, which encourages law students to use the skills they’ve learned to give back. But Davis points out that the clients are not the only ones who benefit from the program. Law students are able to develop critical skills they will use in practice, regardless of whether they go into tax law.
““Taking a theoretical concept they are learning about in school and using it in real life is something that complements what we can teach them in a classroom setting,” says Davis.
Third-year student Anthony J. McCollum agrees.  He participated in VITA all three years of law school and says the lessons he learned there will help him after graduation when he begins work in the Fifth Circuit solicitor’s office.
“VITA enriched my experience at UofSC Law by giving me the opportunity to help the community while also utilizing the skills I acquired in the classroom, such as critical thinking and logical problem solving.”
Davis says getting involved with VITA also increased her knowledge of the subject, pushing her to brush up on rules she doesn’t use on a regular basis.
“I think it’s important for students to know that the professors continue to learn. We believe you never truly stop learning, and VITA has been a great way for me to grow in a subject I really care about,” says Davis.
The process of volunteering is a learning opportunity in and of itself, as students must pass a certification and ethics test generated by the Internal Revenue Service. Davis says much like the goal of law school, VITA doesn’t expect students to have every answer or law memorized, but to have the tools and understanding to know how to find the answer.
The School of Law has seen the demand for this service grow each year, and more students are encouraged to volunteer in order to meet the need. Davis points out how pleased she was to see students of varying levels of tax law understanding participating, getting experience, and giving back.
“Whatever area of law you plan to practice; you can never get enough experience interacting with clients. It’s an opportunity that will only help students—even the ones who went screaming from tax law.”