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Accounting students help community

| Thursday, February 20, 2014

Accounting majors from Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame are helping members of the South Bend community this tax season—for free.

In 1972, a new accountancy professor interested in helping people claim their earned income tax credit founded the Tax Assistance Program (TAP). That professor, Ken Milani, now mentors undergraduate students 42 years later as they continue assisting members of the South Bend community.

John Cergnul, a former student of Milani’s and TAP volunteer in 1975 and 1976, is now an assistant professor of accounting at Saint Mary’s College. The Notre Dame alumnus said he advises his students to participate in the program for various reasons.

Junior Taylor Etzell said the experience with real tax returns takes students far beyond the classroom.

“The classroom can give you basic scenarios of what you may encounter when preparing someone’s tax return but the Tax Assistance Program is far superior,” Etzell said. “We are looking at real employees’ W-2s and 1099s and have to pull the correct numbers from the forms and place them where they belong on the federal and state tax returns. It’s all so real life and so exciting.”

Cergnul said the earned income tax credit is comparable to a negative tax.

“So when you file your tax return you’re getting a refund, you’re just getting your own money back, right? A negative tax is the government giving you money,” Cergnul said.

Acquiring the credit is a difficult process, Cergnul said. This is where the student volunteers come in.

“The problem is that it’s very complicated just to see who qualifies and then to make the calculations as to how much the credit is and how much you’re entitled to,” Cergnul said. “That was the genesis of the program and it remains so today.”

The tax assistance the program offers is completely free for participants, Cergnul said.

“We’re doing tax returns for people and we don’t charge them,” he said. “That’s the best part of the program. The second best part of the program is what the students learn.”

Tap_NewsGraphic (1)STEPH WULZ | The Observer

Cergnul said the practical application makes the lessons in accounting classrooms tangible and the weight of responsibility becomes more real.

“The third big benefit from this is the students’ poise and confidence. They’re sitting across the table from real people with real dollars, real taxes,” Cergnul said. “In class it’s hypothetical. Take a look at Problem 35, oh heck I got it wrong.”

Etzell said the professors running the program have given her both confidence and the necessary skills.

“My professors — Cergnul, in particular — have instilled in me a confidence that must be used when preparing a return,” Etzell said. “Milani has taught me how to look at the correct information and extract meaning from simple interview questions we direct toward the taxpayers. Because of his direction, I know what exactly I’m looking for and how I am going to go about finding that information.”

Cergnul said students are invariably anxious when they start out, but gain confidence over time.

“By the end of the filing season, they’ve grown in poise and their ability to communicate with other people — professional communication — is enhanced,” Cergnul said.

This poise ultimately helps students as they interview for jobs, he said.

“I mean they’ve actually sat across the table with a real client and did a real transaction and people who don’t go through this program haven’t done that,” Cergnul said. “Those communication skills translate very well in interviews.”

Etzell said the work can be difficult given the sheer number of clients students are required to assist.

“Professor Milani, along with Professor Cergnul, have taught me how to be perform under pressure,” she said. “We have lines of people waiting for us to prepare their returns so it is of utmost importance that we move efficiently, yet effectively, through everyone’s paperwork and return forms.”

Etzell said as challenging as the work is, it is rewarding to help out members of the local community.

“I have been given the necessary tools to perform well in this program, and now my duty is to help the community,” Etzell said. “Detecting when people have earned certain deductions or credits is a task in and of itself, but again, the reward of helping others makes all the work so worth it.

“My favorite part is seeing the people come in looking rather flustered and then them leaving a little while later with a sense of relief on their faces.”

Junior Grace Harvey said TAP has helped hone her knowledge of tax practices and concepts.

“Even though my internship this summer with Grant Thorton is more focused on corporate tax rather than personal income tax, [TAP is] an awesome opportunity,” Harvey said.

The two credit hours contribute toward the 150 credit hours required to sit for the CPA exam, Harvey said.

Harvey said that participating students will help file tax returns in various locations throughout South Bend  with tax filings due April 15.

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About Rebecca O'Neil

Senior news writer for Saint Mary's College and news editor for The Observer

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