“Seeing the smiles on their faces was one of the more rewarding experiences of my life.”
This is how University of Delaware master of science in accounting Class of 2019 graduate Scott Smith described his experience preparing free tax returns for underserved Delawareans this past tax season through the newly founded Lerner Tax Clinic. Made possible by gifts from alumni of UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, the clinic is an expansion of the college’s previous work to provide students with real-world tax experience while offering vital tax services to the community.
“The population we assisted occasionally relied on refunds to help pay rent, groceries and other necessities of life,” said Smith, who worked as a tax manager and site coordinator at the clinic this season. “Being able to provide an essential public service and offer free advice on possible changes they could make in the future to increase their yearly net income is what truly made the job worthwhile.
“Having practice preparing several hundred returns and learning about tax laws and tax reform provided firsthand expertise that could not have been gathered from reading a textbook,” he continued. “I also learned plenty of customer service skills, as the hundreds of people I encountered all came from different backgrounds and experiences… It did not take long for me to realize that the benefits I was receiving were so much more than just knowledge.”
Smith said that this role, which he called an “incredible job,” helped prepare him to begin a new position working at national tax firm EisnerAmper this fall. Encouraging and equipping Blue Hens for tax industry careers in this way, while also serving the community, is exactly what Lerner accounting alumnus Chris Mauthe, Class of 1991, had in mind when he donated the gift that helped make the clinic’s expansion possible.
“This is what it is all about — giving back to the community,” said Mauthe, who is a partner and chief clients and markets officer at Deloitte Tax LLP. “Creating opportunities for the generations that follow us, and making those opportunities even better than the ones we had. It all starts in the local community.
“We are always looking to increase the number of accounting and tax majors coming through the system,” Mauthe continued. “Sometimes young business students are predisposed towards other areas of business; however, the nature of the issues we address in the tax profession can be equally as complex and sophisticated — it is a very exciting and rewarding business profession.”
Mauthe said that he donated to this effort because, “It is the right thing to do — to give back, and to provide others with the same opportunities that I was given. The University of Delaware positioned me to achieve success in the business world, and I would like to ensure the next generation has the same opportunities, if not more.
“There is no question that my time at Delaware represented some of the best years of my life, and many of the relationships and friendships that I cultivated at Delaware remain with me today,” he said. “Many of my best friends today are people I met at Delaware. For me, UD will always be a special place.”
The expansion made possible by Mauthe and fellow alumnus Rich Hyman, Class of 1992, enables UD students and faculty to serve more individuals, and to extend the program’s availability from seasonal to year-round. The clinic is also now able to provide transportation options and higher levels of certification, including retirement and investment planning, providing students with additional exposure to the tax industry as early as freshman year.
Accounting major Andrew Casamento, Class of 2019, said that he certainly benefited from this exposure to the tax industry during his time at the Lerner Tax Clinic this season. In addition to fulfilling his Discovery Learning Experience (DLE) requirement for graduation, Casamento became certified to perform tax returns for low-income families on an advanced level.
“I was also able to increase my people skills by talking to everyone that sat in front of me,” Casamento said. “That human interaction and genuine connection was the greatest part of the entire experience… Those people made the difference, and those people made my time so much more worthwhile!
“I felt an immense source of pride knowing that I was able to change somebody’s day,” he continued. “Telling a family that they were going to receive a return from the federal government was the greatest feeling.”
Brian Greenstein, associate professor of accounting and the faculty member in charge of the Lerner Tax Credit course (ACCT363), said that students like Smith and Casamento are providing an essential service: “Underserved residents who are most in need of access to government programs often aren’t given the guidance they need to apply for funds that they are entitled to, primarily the Earned Income Tax credit.”
He added that the UD course’s partnership with Nehemiah Gateway Community Development Corporation helps “make for a special experience.”
“They are a large non-profit organization dedicated to improving financial wellness, and have a committed core of long-term volunteers, some retired and some who have extra time that they can donate,” Greenstein continued. “Our students volunteer side by side with non-UD personnel and get great support from these experienced individuals.”
He called this a “symbiotic relationship, as I’ve heard that our students bring a lot of energy to the table.”
For students, Greenstein continued, “Certainly, the program gives them a great deal of self-confidence. Almost all our students are somewhat nervous going into the process, but after realizing that they know far more than they think they do, they become confident professionals by the end of the program.
“It really makes them feel good to help others improve the quality of their lives.”