Montana State University

MSU accounting students to volunteer in Alaska over spring break

March 15, 2010 -- Anne Pettinger Cantrell, MSU News Service


Four MSU accounting students are working as volunteers in Alaska over spring break, preparing tax returns for residents of small, remote villages. Two students will travel to villages on Kodiak Island, pictured here in 2009. Photo courtesy of MSU College of Business.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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While many college students seek to follow the sun over spring break, four Montana State University students will travel to frigid destinations, arriving in small float and bush planes. In some of the spots where they'll stay, the students will forgo showers and running water. In most of them, they'll be preparing dinners of dehydrated food and sleeping on the floors of schools and community centers.

The students -- four College of Business accounting majors -- will be working as volunteers during spring break, using the expertise they've learned in school to help others. They will spend a week traveling through small, remote villages in Alaska, preparing tax returns for village residents. The students will do so through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, which the Internal Revenue Service established to assist people who find it difficult to pay for tax preparation services.

"I couldn't pass up the chance to go to Alaska, and the trip will also be an opportunity to get more experience doing tax returns," said Jennifer Larson, a graduate accounting student from Colorado who will travel to the western Alaska tundra to prepare returns.

"I'm excited to see the villages," Larson added. "It will be neat to see a different culture from what I'm used to."

The business students - Larson, Bryan Jackson, Caitlyn Deen and Wasawat Tuntiprapha - were selected from among about 25 students who were interested in traveling to Alaska to prepare returns. Accounting professor Anne Christensen, who helped arrange the trip, as well as similar trips the last two years, said they were chosen because of their academic excellence and experience.

The College of Business pays $600 toward each of the student's airfare to Anchorage, with the students responsible for the difference - about $100-$200 -- themselves. All other trip expenses will be paid by the Alaska Business Development Center, or ABDC, a non-profit organization that sponsors the trip and takes care of logistical arrangements.

The students arrived in Anchorage on Friday, March 12, and completed training the next day. They shopped for food in Anchorage before departing for their villages on Sunday, March 14.

Deen and Larson will visit three villages in western Alaska, which range in population from about 350 to 445 people. Larson says they expect to complete about 250 returns during that time. She says they'll bring sleeping bags and are prepared to sleep in the schools and community centers where they work, and she's "excited" that they'll at least have a microwave for food preparation. One of the villages does not have water suitable for drinking, so they'll have to treat water or bring water with them.

Jackson and Tuntiprapha will visit six villages on Kodiak Island. The villages tend to be even smaller; one has a population of just 45. They'll fly to the villages in bush planes. Like the others, they will be prepared to cook, find safe drinking water, and - as Jackson calls it--"camp indoors," for the duration of the week.

The students say they feel prepared for the work. In Bozeman, they practiced preparing returns through the VITA program offered through MSU. They also passed an IRS tax preparation exam, completed at least one comprehensive tax course and received specific training related to common tax issues. They've also accessed a variety of federal and state reference materials, and they've received extra information about tax considerations related to fishing, oil and gas, as well as Alaska's payment program for its citizens.

"The students are well prepared for the issues they're most likely to see," Christensen said.

Still, the students expect they may face unique issues unrelated to accounting. For example, about 90 percent of the villagers with whom the students will interact are Native, and many of them speak a first language other than English, so simply communicating with their clients may be a challenge.

"We probably won't have translators, but will rely on other people in the room (who speak both languages) to help us communicate," Larson said.

"It should be lots of fun," she added. "I can't wait."

Anne Christensen, (406) 994-2043 or annec@montana.edu