In 2010, Felician University Professor Joseph Lizza MBA, CPA, CGMA saw a need to give his students a real-world learning experience that extends beyond the textbooks, lectures and exams. He wanted to offer them a unique opportunity to engage and advance the Felician Franciscan mission of service, while also applying and sharpening the technical skills learned in their coursework.
From this concept, the idea to create a local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program was born. The VITA program, which is operated through Felician University’s Young Entrepreneurs Club, offers free tax assistance to area residents, primarily serving low-income residents, senior citizens, persons with disabilities and limited English speaking taxpayers.
All VITA volunteers must pass a rigorous certification course—administered by the IRS—and tax professionals from Lizza’s firm, Lizza & Associates, oversee the training process and provide guidance to the volunteers so they can be prepared for success in the program.
Big economic & community impact
VITA is a high-impact practice that is designed to aid the community. The program—managed entirely by student volunteers and overseen by tax professional volunteers—is critical in bringing back money to local residents and the local community in the form of tax refund dollars.
These dollars come back to these families and subsequently to the local economy when they spend them locally—dollars that may not otherwise be here if the VITA volunteers did not provide their expertise and service in helping these families file their returns. The economic impact of VITA on our local economy is significant in and of itself.
Transferring classroom skills to the ‘real world’
However, it’s not just the taxpayers and the communities served that benefit from this program. The students, who often begin their training feeling fearful and insecure, leave their last day of service as confident individuals who have clearly gained a thorough understanding of the income tax process, strengthened their operational and people skills—and become a valued part of a team.
“The great thing about VITA is that it really is an opportunity to take what was a classroom environment—with students who basically had no experience—throw them out into the real world and give them the real world experience. Watching these students grow in the short time that we do the program is absolutely amazing,” says Lizza.
Many of the student volunteers feel that the program helps them with their coursework studies and their exams by providing them with information, perspective and details not covered in the classroom lectures.
“I feel as though the VITA program initially helped me in boosting my preparation. In class, you just get the bullets and you read chapter after chapter,” says William Nesbitt, a first year VITA volunteer. “I feel the VITA program illuminated the idea of the firsthand experience and it gave me preparation on how to do tax returns. And I was able to take that information and bring it into the classroom where we actually get tested on it.”
But it truly goes beyond just the classroom. For Samantha Lederle, a first year VITA volunteer, the program has actually helped shape her career plans for the future.
“When I first started in the VITA program I had never seen a tax return before. I came into Felician undecided on what I wanted to do. VITA really helped me gain the confidence in myself knowing that accounting was the field for me,” Lederle says.
Lizza has offered the expertise and the time of his own firm’s employees so they can oversee the thorough training process of the volunteers. This arrangement between a private business organization and Felician University helps the VITA program to operate. Two of these employees are Matthew Kmetz and Joseph Kennedy, former Felician University students who both served their 6th year as VITA volunteers this year.
They have now come, according to Kennedy, “full circle” in growing from students to professional leaders—and now they watch as the incoming students they train also turn into leaders through the course of the program.
Lizza extends internship opportunities to some of the students that participate in the VITA program so the breadth of this program’s reach goes beyond tax day, bringing many students into the professional accounting firm setting.
From classroom to work
“In our continued commitment to the community through the VITA initiative, volunteers build tremendous experiences and gain extremely valuable skills which are necessary for an easy transition from the academic setting to an employment setting,” says Lizza.
Employers are increasingly looking for candidates that have ample experience in the field—not just the classroom—and VITA provides these students with the type of real-life experiences that can come in handy as bold, standout talking points during the interview process they will embark on after graduating.
“It [VITA] helps the person being interviewed a lot because the questions they ask you—with the VITA program—you can relate to any situation,” says Amanda Nowak, a 3rd year VITA volunteer. “Whether it was a good one or a bad one, you can relate it to your experience, how you helped the person and all the processes you went through with each situation.”
And speaking of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ situations, it’s important to remember that it is tax returns we are dealing with—a process that many taxpayers consider arduous, nebulous and challenging. The time the students spend volunteering is jam packed and demanding. The scenarios are not uniform as each filer is unique—just like the future clients these student volunteers will serve. It truly helps them develop skills in customer service, client relations and communication that will help the students in their future professional lives.
“People are there to get their taxes done and it’s a very stressful situation for them. And if you can calm somebody down and communicate with them effectively in a stressful situation, you can communicate with them in basically any situation,” says Kmetz. “You can communicate with the client, you can communicate with the other volunteers, professors, business professionals, tax jurisdictions. It really allows you to communicate with anybody and it’s a real practical skill that you can take from the classroom to a real world experience and into your professional life.”
While it can be stressful at times, the students recognize the ‘good’ that comes out of the VITA program.
“VITA is not only a great experience for the people you service, it’s really rewarding for ourselves. The people that come to VITA show a sense of gratitude towards us. Just knowing that they appreciate what we do makes us feel good about ourselves. It helps us grow as a leader and as a person,” says Melissa Gallo, a 2nd year VITA volunteer. “And we always put the people first. With that being said, when they’re satisfied with what we do for them, we’re satisfied as well.”
A model for merging the campus & the business community
As previously mentioned, the VITA program is an innovative community service collaboration between Felician University’s School of Business and a private business organization. Programs like this, according to Lizza, deliver the students a message and a life experience they can’t get in the classroom or in a textbook. It satisfies twofold the university’s mission of educating the students while also serving the community.
In an effort to widen the scope of coursework and enhance the student experience, Felician University’s School of Business has been offering more such initiatives that merges the campus community with the business community. As Lizza says, Felician University provides these programs to deliver the students a message and a life experience they can’t get in the classroom or in a textbook. These initiatives include business symposia, CEO visits, study abroad programs and active engagement with local business organizations, such as the Meadowlands Regional Chamber.
Felician University recognized this need and delivered on its partnership goal when it appointed former KPMG Partner Robert P. Evans as Dean of the School of Business last year. Dean Evans brings with him a wealth of experience and successful track record in building cooperative partnerships. He is former Chairman of the Advisory Board for Meadowlands Regional Chamber and currently serves on the Executive Board, as well as the organization’s Finance, Strategic Planning and Compensation Committees.
“We are committed to advancing more partnerships between academia, enterprise and community. Initiatives like the VITA program engage Felician University with the business community and bring the best of both worlds to the students,” says Dean Evans. “We are incorporating real work experience into our business programs. We are not only teaching subject matter, we are also teaching career paths which is so important in academia and business today. The VITA program helps us bring subject matter to life, build confidence and also give back to our community.”