The early returns are good for Clemson business students volunteering as tax preparers for Pickens County residents.

Sixteen freshman and sophomore College of Business students are giving their time and knowledge to an Internal Revenue Service volunteer tax program through the United Way of Pickens County.

Students Justin Harris, Emily Blackshire and Greg Arges participate in the Clemson-United Way volunteer tax program.

Students Justin Harris, Emily Blackshire and Greg Arges participate in the Clemson-United Way volunteer tax program.

“Our volunteer students make up more than half of those participating in the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program of Pickens County,” said Josh Harris, Department of Finance lecturer and academic advisor. “These students are committing four volunteer hours each week this semester and some of them are carrying 15 credits. It’s a lot of work, and I’m proud of them.”

Jeremy Price, United Way of Pickens County manager of programs and initiatives, said this is the second year of Clemson’s participation. Last year, more than 1,500 tax returns were prepared and filed for county residents who must meet certain income requirements to qualify for the service.

“I think it’s amazing that more than half of our volunteer force is comprised of Clemson business students,” Price said. “They are either tax preparers or site coordinators and we have two of our six sites that are being run completely by Clemson students.”

Harris said beyond a career development opportunity, the volunteer program gives students soft skills, which he says are difficult to teach in a classroom setting.

“These students are interacting with people and talking about money with an underserved segment of our community,” Harris said. “It’s an experiential learning opportunity that gives our students a realistic snapshot of personal financial services and they aren’t having to wait until after graduation to experience it.”

Hanna O’Leary, a senior accounting major from Walpole, Mass., was a tax preparer in the program last year but is now a site coordinator. She said the experience has enabled her to interact with a diverse group of clients to see how her work directly impacts their lives.

“As a tax preparer, the VITA program allowed me to interact with people of different backgrounds and beliefs, which strengthened my interpersonal skills,” she said. “This tax season, as a coordinator, I’ve gained leadership experience in mentoring new volunteers. I’ve also sharpened my critical thinking and problem-solving skills as each day brings different clients and new challenges.”

Price agrees the program benefits clients and volunteers in a variety of ways.

“Students tell me they really appreciate the human factor – being exposed to a diverse population. When someone sits in front of you, you take on the role of counselor and you hear about the issues they face in their lives,” Price said. “Students are getting practical tax preparation experience, but beyond that they’re helping a client group they may not otherwise have been exposed to.”

Hanna said the experience has made her a better communicator and leader, and has also provided her fodder for job interviews.

“I’ve shared my experiences as a volunteer in interviews with Big Four accounting firms and graduate schools alike,” said Hanna, who will pursue her masters’ in accountancy after graduation. “In all of those interviews the people were impressed with the program. I really think it set me apart from other applicants.”

Harris, the catalyst behind Clemson’s involvement in the program, said students’ participation also gives them a taste of what will be expected of them in the business world.

“Businesses are expected to be socially responsible to the locations and people they serve,” Harris said. “Getting students acclimated to these expectations is another way we prepare them for life after Clemson.”

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