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Accounting Majors Rake In Cash for the Community

Written by Christopher Lisee
3/22/2011

Professor Alan Cohen teaches an accounting class.

Every tax season, Ithaca College accounting majors head downtown to Alternatives Federal Credit Union, grab a computer, and help low-income families get up to $6,000 in earned income tax credits.

The numbers add up fast.

In 2009, 19 accounting majors dedicated 504 hours to VITA, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program—the equivalent of 21 days of nonstop tax preparation. “Thanks to these students, together with another 64 community volunteers, some of whom are IC staff, the total tax refunds returned to Tompkins County residents through VITA was $3,469,000,” says Brian Zapf, the community tax program director at the bank. IC students, he says, were responsible for about $950,000.

“I can’t really say I did one type of return throughout the entire experience, which was awesome,” says Jessica Waddell ’10. “Sometimes you just got those clients who were so personable and so friendly and so excited to be there that it made doing their taxes worthwhile. Some of them were like, ‘Oh, I probably only got like $100 back,’ and you’re like, ‘No, you got $1,500 back!’ And they get so excited about it.”

Of course, there were small problems along the way. Some students found the TaxWise software hard to use, and some tax preparations were difficult because of the sheer number of variables. But Waddell says there was always someone to help if they had questions.

“My favorite part was telling someone that they had a nice refund coming their way,” says VITA participant Mike Bock ’10. “Some of the people we worked with were extremely poor. It was very satisfying to tell them that they would be getting a couple-thousand-dollar return and seeing their face light up.”

 

The Professor Behind Vita: Alan Cohen

As I’m talking to accounting professor Alan Cohen about VITA, a student pokes his head in the door. “Clark,” Cohen says, “this guy wants to write an article about me.” I introduce myself, then Clark and Cohen start a conversation. Suddenly Cohen asks me, “Do you know what his name is?” I don’t. “Clark Kent,” Cohen informs me. I chuckle, and tell him that’s too perfect to be true. Then Cohen pulls a small, perfectly round glass bead from his pocket. “Do you know what this is?” I don’t. “Kryptonite.”

Meeting with Cohen in his office is like stepping into a play I never got a script for. Students and professors pop in for advice and assistance. And when we’re alone, Cohen gracefully feints and thrusts with verbal weapons, while my speech seems heavy and awkward. Yet I want to keep learning. Terence Meade ’10, who’s taken a few courses with Cohen, has observed this effect in the classroom as well. “He definitely gets you excited about what’s going on,” Meade says. “One of the other accounting professors put it: ‘He puts on more of a performance than most.’”

Cohen keeps students on their toes. “You need to make sure you stay alert,” says Mike Boch ’10. “Do not yawn or chew gum, don’t lean back and stretch, and don’t use any words such as ‘um’ or ‘uh.’”

Fifteen years ago, Cohen brought the VITA program to IC as a way for students to apply what they learned in class to help others. “These families are getting a return of $6,000 on their $8,000, $12,000, or $15,000 yearly income,” Cohen tells me. “That’s the importance of volunteering in your discipline.” Cohen extends his hands to either side of his face, like he is holding an invisible watermelon. “When families come out of there, they have a smile this big.”



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