When students think of Winter Study courses, a wide variety of ideas comes to mind. Some choose to delve into a challenging or unfamiliar academic subject, while others opt for more unorthodox courses like yoga or animal tracking. A select few, however, decide to do taxes. Although at first glance it may seem like an unbearably tedious endeavor, those students who dare to take Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and decide to use their newfound skills to help the local community soon find an incredibly fulfilling, fascinating and effective mode of community service.
Emily Elder ’20 is one of these students. She initially signed up for the class on a whim – taxes “seemed interesting and practical and a skill I should acquire at some point in my life,” she said. After the course ended, she decided to try volunteering and came to realize the huge effect that volunteer tax assistance had on local residents. “I actually really enjoyed doing it and realized it was a really necessary service for members of the community.” Like many students, she has decided to continue to devote her time to tax work and continues to go into North Adams on Saturdays to provide this crucial service.
Elder is a member of the newest generation in what has become a long-standing tradition at the College. The program was started in 2005 by faculty in the economics department (specifically Professors Sara LaLumia and William Gentry, both of whom specialize in tax policy), the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) under the leadership of its director Paula Consolini and the Berkshire Community Action Council (BCAC), a Pittsfield-based community service organization that deals with countywide poverty issues. These groups got together to start Purple Valley VITA, a non-profit organization dedicated to using the College’s wealth of knowledge and expertise to directly benefit members of the local community. Every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning of tax season, Consolini and a small team of students head into North Adams to provide what has become an invaluable service for members of the local community.
“I’m particularly pleased this year … In [the] last couple years we’ve seen a real increase in student participation in the course,” Consolini said. “These past few years it’s been right at the max, 13 or 14 students.” Of the students who take the course, around six or seven will continue volunteering through spring semester, with four or five students attending each session. Despite their small workforce, every year the students serve more than 100 local residents. Most of their clients would either not seek tax assistance at all and miss out on potentially significant refunds or hire a company like H&R Block, which will often charge hundreds of dollars in fees.
“Being an advocate for these people, being in their corner, is just a huge service,” Consolini said. “These are people working in the part of the economy that tends to be the most volatile … they experience that economic churning, and they fall through the cracks.” Often, clients will be missing out on significant refunds or making financial decisions that end up hurting them in the long run because of the opacity of the tax system. Volunteers, although by no means tax experts after a month-long course, have unique access to the educational resources to figure out each individual’s unique problem.
The service, in addition, ends up being a boon to the volunteers themselves. “It’s material you may not see in textbooks,” Consolini said, referencing the practical financial knowledge that students acquire by working with individuals on the ground. Students of economics and public policy are surprised to see that the theoretical ramifications of measures that they study in class are often different from the effects they see in the real world. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn an awful lot, to gain expertise in an area that’s very valuable for you to have,” Consolini said.
Robbie Dulin ’19, who took the Winter Study course last year and is now a student leader on the project, echoed Consolini’s sentiments. “It really helps to pay attention to what’s going on in North Adams and our local communities because the Berkshires, unfortunately, are a distressed area,” he said. Like Elder, Dulin signed up for the course without many expectations but soon realized how invaluable the service was. “People generally hear about things that are going on, but I think it’s important to get real insight into what people are dealing with, learn the challenges they face.”
Working with Purple Valley VITA has opened Dulin’s and other students’ eyes to the problems encountered by many members of the Berkshire community and the unique ways in which students at the College can substantially help. Although the small team currently working on the project is able to do a lot of good on its own, Dulin added that it is always welcoming fresh and interested minds. “I think this is a great program that people should look into if they’re interested in doing this. We would love to have their help.”