Student Shares Experiences from Alaska VITA Trip

March 22nd, 2013

Some JJCBE accounting students have had the unique opportunity to travel to remote areas of Alaska as a part of the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). Since 2008, anywhere from four to six students have spent Spring Break volunteering in rural Alaska. Lisa Blankenship, Kelli Goody, Haakon Johnson, Heather Morrison, Priya Parmeshwaran, and Renee Waterland were the six students who took advantage of this opportunity in 2013.

We asked Goody to share her experiences on this trip with us. She is currently in the Master of Professional Accountancy (MPAc) program.

How did you hear about MSU and why did you choose business?
I was born and raised in Montana, but I decided to come to MSU after attending the University of Montana my freshman year. I was majoring in pharmacy and decided to move to Bozeman for the summer to work at a pharmacy. I spent the summer in Bozeman and decided to transfer to MSU because I loved the town. I studied pharmacy for a year in Bozeman and realized that my favorite part about working at the pharmacy was interacting with people and learning how the business was run. I decided to transfer into business, and after taking Dr. Marc Guillian’s ACTG 201 class, I changed my major to accounting. I graduated last year with my degree in accounting and entered into the MPAc program this fall.

How did you hear about the VITA program in Alaska and why were you interested in participating?
I heard about the Alaska VITA program in Dr. Anne Christensen’s Introduction to Tax class. I wanted to participate in the program because I was interested in furthering my tax knowledge and I enjoy volunteering and helping people. I have never been to Alaska and I’m always ready to experience a new adventure.

Please tell us about your experiences on this journey to Alaska.
The first day of Spring Break, I departed from Helena and flew all night to Anchorage. We arrived at approximately 2:00 a.m. and were shuttled to our hotel to get a few hours of rest. We were woken up early the next morning and were taken to the campus in Anchorage to complete our tax training and pick up our laptops. The following morning we packed all of our things and took a flight from Anchorage to Bethel. Upon arriving in Bethel, we learned that our luggage had gotten lost, which contained some of our food, water, and a sleeping bag. Since we had some food and water and only one sleeping bag was missing, the directors decided we were to carry on with our next flight and they would get us our bags as soon as they could.

We were then taken to a very small airport where we bundled up in our warmest clothes and boarded a small five-person plane that took us to Tunanuk, which is located in western Alaska on the Bering Sea. The landing [strip] was covered in snow and the villagers greeted us on three snowmobiles. After taking a snowmobile to where we would be staying, we learned that we would be sleeping in a garage, which was a bit of a shock. We immediately set up tables and our laptops and began doing tax returns until 11:00 p.m. that night. The next morning we were woken up at 8:00 a.m. and filed tax returns all day until 12:00 a.m. with little breaks. The next day we were able to visit the school where we ate lunch with the kids and showered. Little did we know that this would be the last shower or cooked meal that any of us would have for the rest of the trip!

The next morning we were woken up at 6:00 a.m. because we were travelling to a new village, Toksook Bay. This time our ride was [on] three snowmobiles with large sleds on the back, and since there were four of us, I had to ride behind the snowmobile in one of the sleds across the snowy tundra. The ride took approximately a half an hour and when we finally arrived, we learned we would be staying in the Bingo Hall. This village was larger, so we didn’t do as many tax returns because some of the residents had used Turbo Tax. Luckily, this allowed us to explore the community more and meet some of the people. Some of the local kids took us around the town and introduced us to their grandparents. We also played games with the younger kids and the older kids stayed until curfew telling us about their lives in the village, which was very eye opening.

On the last day, we woke up and only did a few tax returns and then we were able to visit the school there and use their Wi-Fi. Later that day, the kids that we had met the night before picked us up on their four-wheelers and took us to the Bering Sea, where we ice fished with them and an elder. I caught two Tom Cod, and it was the coldest I have ever been in my life. That was the last day of our adventures because, unfortunately, we were pulled out of the village a day early due to bad weather. We stayed our last night in Bethel at a nursing home, and we were lucky enough to meet the maintenance man that gave us a tour of Bethel and took us to the local craft fair. The next day we flew back to Anchorage and took a red-eye flight back to Montana.

How many tax returns did you end up preparing during your trip?
I personally ended up doing 70-80 returns. [The six students filed more than 400 tax returns.]

What were your most memorable experiences from the trip?
My most memorable experiences were spending time with the kids and learning about how different their lives are from ours. I enjoyed doing complex tax returns in a realistic setting and advancing my tax knowledge overall.

Why are these types of experiences important as a student at the JJCBE?
These types of experiences are important as a student because they not only give us first-hand experience in performing actual tax returns, but it also gives us experience in understanding and learning about different cultures. I feel that this experience has not only made me a well-rounded student, but it has given me the technical and soft skills I will need in my future career.

What did you learn (or experience) that you feel will help you with your future career in accounting?
I learned that I could do taxes virtually anywhere and also the importance of teamwork. I was with two other students, and if we had any tax questions, the only reference material we had were the books we brought and our own personal knowledge from the training. The tax returns we completed were mainly for sole proprietors and commercial fisherman, which none of us had experience doing prior to this trip. We didn’t have access to the Internet and if we had a question we couldn’t raise our hands to have the teacher come and help us. This experience not only enhanced my problem-solving skills, but it helped us grow together as team in a stressful situation.

For more information about the VITA program, please see our Website: http://www.montana.edu/business/accounting/vita.html.