Accounting Students Traveling the State, Gaining Practical Experience

Young accounting students at UAA are traveling the state to provide a service unavailable and unaffordable in most rural villages. The students, through an accounting internship elective, prepare tax returns for rural communities in need.

The Alaska Business Development Center’s Volunteer Tax and Loan Program is possible due to a number of local establishments working together. The accounting department at the College of Business works in cooperation with the IRS, the Department of Commerce and the ABDC. Their combined efforts make it possible for students to receive practical experience while traveling the state.

“A lot of the things we are taught here at school are more theoretical and you get the knowledge, but you don’t really get to apply it,” Curtis Warren said, accounting major. “When I’m out in a village preparing taxes I actually have to recall and think critically about what was taught in class to complete the returns correctly.”

Warren has taken two trips to rural villages: one to Toksook Bay and one to Napaskiak and Oscarville.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, sponsored by the IRS, had been helping rural communities for years before the new joint venture was developed. R.F. Fernandez, associate professor of accounting, outlined the growth of the program.

When commercial fishing took a sharp dive nearly 15 years ago, there was an increase in non-compliance in several of the coastal villages.

“Economic downturn coupled with a lack of expertise in income tax preparation made for a lot of delinquency,” Fernandez said. “People were not filing their taxes.”

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Now in its fourteenth year, UAA senior accountants are not the only students involved in the unique program. Ithaca College in New York and the University of Idaho send student volunteers to rural villages around our state.

The program is most appealing to community service oriented students who believe in giving something back.

“Positive experience,” Warren said. “I love getting out and helping the people.”

The program currently assists eight areas of the state: Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, Interior, Kodiak Island, Pribilofs, Southeast, Western and Yukon Delta. According to the ABDC 2006 annual report, the program began its pilot project in 1996 serving 185 people in seven communities and completed 186 tax returns. In 2006, its eleventh season, the program had gained wide recognition among rural entities. Volunteers traveled to 69 rural communities and assisted over 6,500 taxpayers, including spouses and dependants who had to file tax forms. They prepared and filed 3,016 tax returns free of charge to individuals. This service generated nearly $3.7 million in tax returns.

“Many people are due refunds,” Fernandez said. “Those refunds are an economic stimulus to the villages and the IRS is happy tax returns are being filed, so it’s a win-win situation.”

Student involvement in the program has ebbed in recent years. Two years ago, 20 students signed up for the program. The following year nine students signed up and the current program only includes five UAA accountants.

Numerous reasons have been speculated for the decline. One such reason is when the program started the internship with ABDC counted as an upper-division-accounting elective. The program was revised four years ago when the College of Business decided the course did not share the value and content added with other upper division accounting electives. Now, the class is simply an accounting elective.

“After this semester the College of Business will evaluate the program to understand the cause of the decline,” Fernandez said. “Participation in the program may have sunk in the last two years, but I still believe it’s an excellent experience for students.”