Rural Alaska—beautiful and remote. It is a place that few people ever have the chance to visit. In spring semester, four students did have that chance as a part of a service trip led by Dr. Fritz Allhoff, associate professor of philosophy. Accountancy students Jill Clark, Andrea Gentile, Madelyn Olsen and Kinsey Staver were on a mission to help as many rural Alaskans file their tax returns as possible. Under Allhoff’s leadership, the group was able to process 400 returns over an eight-day period, visiting four villages.
Why is it important that trained tax preparers are able to meet with the Alaskan natives and assist with tax returns? While some Alaskans in the villages that the students traveled to have Internet and are very familiar with TurboTax and how to use it, others may never have filed a tax return. And due to the typically lower incomes of many rural Alaskans, there could be thousands of dollars in refunds on the line.
That makes for a lot of clients in the villages, which are off the road system and are reached by plane and then snowmobile.
“Work days were long but interesting and completely different every day,” says Gentile. “As soon as we landed in a village, we started setting up right away. We would typically work 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. with lunch breaks and some time to explore the villages.” Despite the long days and painstaking work, Allhoff notes that the students never complained and always greeted the village clients with a warm and positive attitude. “This was a wonderful group of students. The villagers remarked on their enthusiasm and tax knowledge.”
The students and Allhoff were processing a number of returns which belonged to individuals working in the commercial fishing industry as captains or crew members. In order to be prepared for these returns, the group received standard training and also additional training related to commercial fishing from the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.
“It wasn’t uncommon for a fishing boat captain to bring us receipts upon receipts for items bought and sold that were related to his business,” says Staver. “It was up to us to distinguish what was relevant for each section of the return and the amounts that should be claimed. It could be a lengthy process and sometimes difficult to make the determinations.”
Jill Clark found her knowledge of dependents put to the test. “The families in the villages often have complex households, with multiple generations living in the same household, possibly with cousins or family friends. We had to determine who could claim whom on their returns. I think that this experience really helped me to practice what I had learned in my tax classes about dependents.”
The students all found the chance to explore Alaska an amazingly memorable and moving experience. They were often invited into the homes and traditional gatherings of the native Alaskans and warmly welcomed. They had the chance to try local foods such as walrus, caribou, whale and moose. They were frequently presented with crafts and food gifts for their tax preparation services.
"On our first night in Kwigillingok we were invited to a 40-day feast held for the entire village 40 days after the death of a tribal member. We were invited to try a variety of foods and to celebrate the memory of someone’s passing," says Olsen. "The food was amazing and the atmosphere was something I have never experienced. It was incredible."
Students also learned to appreciate the culture of the people they met, learning more about a communal philosophy of living as well as differences in the meaning of eye contact and speech volume in the native culture. Most important of all, the students learned that their time and skills made a meaningful impact in the lives of the people of rural Alaska. “When clients found out that they were getting a refund, their faces would fill with joy,” says Clark. “I had a client who had her infant with her and said ‘now we can get you some new clothes and toys’ when she learned of her refund. I feel very good about being able to help people through this program.”
Chair of the Department of Accountancy, Dr. Don Gribbin, sees this project as a natural extension of students’ learning. “We encourage our students to apply their professional skills not only in one arena but to think about how they can contribute their skills and knowledge to make a difference with non-profits, boards and other organizations. These students have thought beyond themselves and done just that.”