Accounting students crunch numbers for the greater good

Mark Petersen is one of several student volunteers helping low-income earners file their taxes as part of the Center for Siouxland’s VITA program. 

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Where some see a plain tax return, Mark Petersen looks beyond the digits, dotted lines and confusing black-and-white print. He visualizes something entirely different — a snapshot of someone else’s life.

“Each taxpayer has their own story,” he explains.

He's determined to help those stories turn out for the better.  

Center for Siouxland


WHAT: VITA program for low-income taxpayers
WHEN: Every Saturday through tax season
WHERE: View a schedule of remaining sessions at the Center for Siouxland website »

Peterson is one of several Briar Cliff accounting majors assisting with the Center for Siouxland’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which helps low-income earners file their taxes free of charge.

“A lot of people have had some rough luck,” says Tommy Raulston, assistant professor of accounting, who instructs the student volunteers. 

“We're here to do what we can, and hopefully help.”

More than 1,000 people filed their returns last year through Sioux City’s VITA program. This tax season, program director Johnalyn Platt’s goal is to reach 1,150 — which wouldn't be possible without volunteers. 

“Everything here is done at no price,” Platt says. “It’s all volunteer based, down through our greeting, scheduling, training — everyone comes in and gives their time.”

Take Petersen, for example. The senior business/accounting major from Cushing, Iowa, will volunteer eight hours every Saturday until the end of tax season. Weekends are the only time he can fit it in, between his studies and his tax internship at Henjes, Connor & Williams, P.C., an accounting firm in Sioux City.

“I had no clue what to expect. I was new to taxes.”

— VITA student volunteer Mark Petersen

“[The first day of volunteering] I had no clue what to expect. I was new to taxes,” he says. “I was worried the taxpayers would be upset if I didn't get them the amount of refund they were hoping for.”

What he found instead was gratitude. And after a few dozen volunteer hours, the nerves disappeared. Petersen now knows how to file basic returns, W-2’s, interest forms, and any other tax documentation required to be an IRS-certified tax assistant (which every student volunteer is).

“Basically, anyone that walks through the doors, they can help,” Platt says.

It’s all part of the three-credit VITA course, taken by every accounting major at Briar Cliff. Raulston, who teaches the class, says the idea is to give students hands-on experience and show that accountants — though their job may not seem all that glorious — can use their number-crunching powers for the greater good. 

Petersen agrees.

 “People can get too caught up in the importance of their time and forget to give back," he says. "It's not always about making money; sometimes it's nice to help. Even when I'm older and have a career, I'll try to designate time to support the community, too.”

Interested in volunteering? Call 712-252-1861 or visit the Center for Siouxland website to learn more.

Tags: Academics, News, Admissions, Justice, Business, Parents, BCU