UR student tax volunteers

Taxing work: 'Seeing the relief on people’s faces … is a feeling like no other'

March 15, 2024


As tax time approaches along with the accompanying stress, students are stepping up to help families in the Richmond community who need assistance but might not otherwise get assistance filing their returns.

One way UR students help low-income families is by donating their time to the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program. VITA is an IRS program that offers free tax preparation for families and individuals with an income of $64,000 or less.

Gregory Hilldrup
Junior Gregory Hilldrup assists a client with her taxes at Northpark Library, one of four sites served by volunteer students. UR has had its own tax site downtown for 13 years; three years ago, the site moved to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

"This was a way I could give back to the community and help with a subject that causes a lot of stress for people,” said Gregory Hilldrup, a junior business major who is also a pre-med student.

This is Hilldrup’s second year, which allows him to be a quality reviewer. He double checks tax returns to make sure the original preparer entered everything correctly and goes over them line by line with each client. He submits the forms to the IRS while the clients are there. To prepare for the program, students like Hilldrup take training classes and then take a test to become IRS-certified tax preparers.

Students work from February to April 15. Last year, 33 students prepared 445 tax returns, resulting in over $427,000 in tax refunds for the clients. 

“Seeing the relief on people’s faces when we finish and send in their return is a feeling like no other,” Hilldrup said. “That’s especially true when they get a refund.”

This year, 39 students are taking part in the program, including some who serve as Spanish and Chinese translators.

“A large part of the VITA program is the human connection,” said Sasha Hollister, UR site coordinator and an assistant director at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. “It is asking the right questions, active listening, and knowing how to explain the tax return in a way that informs and empowers the client,” she said. “This type of learning is hard to master within the classroom, and it is amazing to watch the students’ growth during their time at the tax site.”

Richmond Law students also donate their time to The Community Tax Law Project, which they’ve done since 2007. The nonprofit organization provides free legal representation to low-income families involved in federal or state tax disputes. Disputes can arise at any time, keeping the clinic busy year-round. The students can also serve as IRS powers of attorney for the clients, which allows them to interact directly with the IRS on their behalf. 

“Although we will prepare tax returns to help resolve certain tax disputes, our focus is the legal representation,” said the project’s executive director, Nancy Rossner, a 2010 Richmond Law alum. “We are grateful for our law student interns. They have made significant changes in the lives of our clients. They have obtained reductions in tax, significant refunds, and settled tax court cases on behalf of our clients.” 

Second-year law student Alex Oswalt, who wants to go into tax law, volunteered for the project last fall. One case involved a Social Security disability client who entered a number incorrectly on their return.

Although the client had previously worked with IRS attorneys before Oswalt stepped in, no one had taken the time to assist the person in simply moving the number to the correct spot on the return.

“I think the taxpayer's problem speaks volumes about the importance of low-income taxpayer clinics and the ever-increasing need for support in such an intimidating area of the law,” Oswalt said.

Hilldrup had a touching moment when he helped a 17-year-old file his tax return. His parents were also there to do their personal and business taxes but were unsure if their son had made enough income to file on his own.

“After reviewing his documents, we established that he didn’t qualify as a dependent and could file his own return. His mom was very excited, and she came over and took pictures of her son with me filling out the return,” Hilldrup said.

“The work that we do has real impacts on people’s lives, and it’s so rewarding to be a part of an organization filled with people that strive to make a difference in our community.”