Alaska VITAInstead of travelling south to Cancun or some other tropical vacation destination for spring break, three College of Business accounting students chose the opposite direction--Alaska. William Kolski, Larene Newman and Sam Roche, participants in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, put in 12-hour days and prepared over 200 tax returns in one week. They volunteered their services for residents in small, remote Alaskan villages, most of which are comprised of a larger than 90 percent native population.

When asked why they chose to spend their spring break on this trip, Kolski, Newman and Roche's answers were fairly similar. They believed that working in an unfamiliar part of the country was a great volunteer opportunity. It was also clear that they would gain valuable additional tax accounting experience. Newman added, "I was interested in learning about the culture in the native villages, which I knew was very different from my cushy life."

The students experienced the necessity of their services when they arrived in the first village on their journey, Quinhagak, with a population of 700. Everyone from the airport employees to the building janitor was excited to see them arrive. Most of the village residents seeking tax assistance traveled far distances to utilize the free service. In each village, long lines quickly formed while people waited for the volunteers' time. With no accountants available in many smaller villages, the nearest tax preparation services are a three hour plane ride to Anchorage.

Before tax preparation volunteers came to these villages, most of the residents did not file tax returns since many did not make enough money to owe income tax. Now with the volunteers' expertise, the residents are receiving substantial tax refunds due to the earned income tax credit, so they jump at the opportunity to utilize this service.

With so many people depending on Kolski, Newman and Roche's knowledge of tax return preparation, the three students had received additional training, along with their experience from the MSU VITA program, prior to their trip. Alaskan tax requirements and structure is different than that of Montana, so the students had to familiarize themselves with tax preparation specific to Alaska. They found that the College of Business prepared them well for this task.

Kolski gives credit to accounting professor Dennis Schmidt's tax courses for the tax law and research knowledge he possesses, as well as the expertise he gained preparing Montana tax returns through the VITA program. "I also find the knowledge of accounting and management communications to be valuable to the experience. It was good to know how to handle and approach certain situations and to be able to represent ourselves and Montana State University in a professional manner," he said.

Similarly, Newman added, "I used quite a few of my notes from 'Advanced Tax' when questions came up while working in the villages. In addition, without the VITA program, I don't know that I would have felt qualified to prepare returns without direct supervision."

"Dennis Schmidt and Anne Christensen did a great job this semester with the MSU VITA program. Thanks to the experience we got in Bozeman, the three of us were confident and capable of heading to Alaska," Roche agreed.

The three students gained valuable tax accounting experience on the trip. Kolski highlighted the one-on-one experience with a different demographic of taxpayer, as well as working with the Alaskan Business Development Center, Inc. (ABDC), who coordinated the volunteer efforts to assist 85 villages across the state.

Roche said the volunteer work placed the students in the midst of a new culture, language, environment and new tax scenarios. "I got the perfect combination of technical knowledge and personal knowledge of self from the experience," he said.

Newman had similar positive experiences. She compared her experiences in Alaska to that of Montana. She said, "I was reminded how lucky I was to live where I did and have easy access to surrounding areas, technology and health care."

Both residents and the students benefited greatly from this experience. Tax returns were prepared for the residents and three students had the experience of a lifetime. Programs like VITA, whether for those on the MSU campus or in another state, provide College of Business accounting students with the hands-on experience that they need to succeed after graduation.