A new Wharton Academically Based Community Service course, in which students perform tax services for the West Philadelphia community, will be offered for the second time this spring semester.
As part of the course, which is titled ACCT 2110: “Tax Policy and Practice in the Philadelphia Community," Campaign for Working Families representatives provide Volunteer Income Tax Assistance training to students. Students can then become a certified VITA volunteer and offer free tax preparation and financial counseling services to taxpayers who need help preparing their tax returns. Professor Edward Scott taught the course for the first time last spring.
Scott said that the 21 students enrolled in the class last spring volunteered for a total of 797 hours, filing 721 tax returns and processing $893,000 worth of refunds for Philadelphia community members.
The curriculum, which occurs concurrently with the training and volunteering components, teaches students about the racial wealth gap, tax systems and policies, and how to discuss sensitive financial issues.
Nursing and Wharton junior Jayden Khuu said that the curriculum provided depth and context to understand how the United States arrived at its current fiscal policy, adding that the course was "fulfilling because there’s a hands-on component."
“You feel like you’re learning practical skills at the same time, contributing to the community, and helping families out in ways that they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.” Khuu said.
The course is scheduled to meet once a week, but some class periods are allotted for students to use toward their volunteering hours. Students are encouraged to reach 40 hours of volunteering by the end of the semester.
Students can choose when and where they volunteer, with volunteer sites ranging from churches like Mount Pisgah in West Philadelphia, the Center City Super Site close to City Hall, and the CWF headquarters in northern Philadelphia.
“I think it’s taught me a lot about engaging with adults in the community,” Wharton junior Shivani Desai said. “If I volunteer with children all the time, it’s not the same as someone who is a mother of three kids or a grandparent.”
Khuu said one of his favorite moments volunteering was when he helped a client receive an extra $1,000 in tax returns by talking to them about their background and learning that they qualify for the American Opportunity Tax Credit.
Accounting professor Catherine Schrand initially began creating the course in the fall of 2021, working closely with the Wharton Undergraduate Division, the Netter Center, and the Campaign for Working Families to design the course and coordinate transportation to volunteer sites.
For the academic component of the course, including guest lectures, Schrand reached out to Penn professors who worked in areas relevant to tax policy.
“Everybody right away was willing to help … I’ve heard from all of them, and they’re all willing to come back and do it again,” Schrand said. “I think they all felt like it was a really valuable course and something that they were willing to support.”
Schrand said that students taking the course do not need to be U.S. citizens, Wharton students, or have any accounting background.
Wharton sophomore Siobhan Halm-Quagrainie said she was initially nervous about the class because she did not have previous experience with accounting. However, she said that the CWF representatives walked students through the VITA training from start to finish.
“Even when you get to the tax sites after doing your training, the managers at the tax sites are ready to help you go through everything,” Halm-Quagrainie said. “They do a review of all the work you’ve done and teach you whichever things you didn’t learn in training.”
Halm-Quagrainie, an international student, found the class to be a good opportunity for her to explore Philadelphia and learn from volunteers who have been working at VITA for decades.
Students agreed that Professor Scott was very open to suggestions and was supportive when it came to helping students with transportation to volunteer sites.
“We always worked hard to try to have this be a no-cost type of experience for them,” Scott said.