Free Tax Service Trains UM Students While Helping Those in Need

MISSOULA – Brandon Travis admits some of his favorite college memories involve doing taxes.

Before you judge him, know the University of Montana alum appears outwardly normal. The 24-year-old hails from the tiny town of Sand Coulee near Great Falls, where he graduated in a class of 10. He then attended UM, where he earned an undergraduate degree in accounting, a certificate in accounting information systems and an accounting master’s degree.

He also did a lot of other people’s taxes. Travis was active with UM’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, which offers free tax services to low-income households, the elderly, foreign college students and others in need.

He had an amazing experience.

“I tell everyone in the accounting program that they have to do VITA,” Travis said. “I understand it’s only one credit, but there are so many experiences attached to it. You get to touch the lives of a lot of people. You know you are doing good and making an impact in the community.”

Leah Diehl is an assistant professor of accounting and finance in UM’s College of Business. She is in her second year managing the VITA program, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays through March 9 in Gallagher Business Building Room 222. Those in households generally earning $64,000 or less are encouraged to make appointments, though Diehl said they can sometimes accommodate walk-ins.

She said the UM program completed 310 tax returns last year, resulting in more than $476,000 in state and federal tax refunds returned to the local community.

“The VITA program is amazing because it’s mutually beneficial,” Diehl said. “It’s a public service that helps educate our students. But it’s also a big undertaking, and there is some expense. Not every university wants to take it on.”

UM alumnus Clem Lockman, a Missoula certified public accountant, has directed the overall Missoula VITA program for 24 years. He said the first VITA program launched in 1971 in California, and he believes UM’s program has trained students since the ’80s.

About 10 UM students have stepped up to staff the program this year. Undergraduate students will work 10 hours and grad students 15 for one college credit.

Travis – who won UM’s “VITA MVP Award” a year ago – became involved in the program as a junior when he first considered an accounting major. He said Kent Swift, the retired professor emeritus who led and nurtured UM’s program for years, allowed him to participate, even though he hadn’t taken a tax class yet.

Travis caught the bug for helping people with their taxes, joining VITA for three years. Like many volunteers from the community, he even helped when he wasn’t earning credit.

“Just seeing the smiles on people’s faces made it worth it,” Travis said. “There were several repeat people who came in every year, and you just expected to see them. I felt like I was making a change in a way I could.”

One of his favorite clients was an elderly woman who ran her own business. Travis said she was always well prepared and brimming with insightful questions. She also brought food to express her gratitude to the student tax preppers.

“She would even bring stuff a couple weekends where she wasn’t getting services done,” Travis said. “You could tell she was somebody’s grandmother.”

Travis also helped foreign students at UM, dealing with tax laws and treaties involving other countries. Additionally, he prepared tax returns for refugees living in Missoula – people from places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. There were language barriers, and sometimes translators were brought in to assist.

But his “Indiana Jones” accounting adventure happened last February during his final year of grad school. As a VITA veteran, he interviewed and was selected for an opportunity to prepare tax returns for Native people in remote parts of Alaska.

UM paid his travel to The Last Frontier, and then the Alaska Business Development Center Inc. supported his in-state food, travel and lodging. After completing his training in Anchorage, he found himself whisked off in an eight-seater plane to the tiny towns of Mountain Village and St. Mary’s in Alaska’s western interior. Each village only had a few hundred people and was situated along the Andreafsky River, a tributary of the great Yukon.

“I was welcomed with the widest arms,” Travis said. “Just the warmest welcome. Many of the people had internet and cell service – although it wasn’t great – but I had to do without internet, cell service or hot water. I went without a shower for a week, and that was a little gross. Everything was done on my laptop hard drive, and I would print them off a copy of their tax returns. I brought the printer.

“But despite all that, is was one of the best parts of my UM experience,” he said. “Meeting the individuals I met and seeing a whole different culture … I never thought in a million years I would do something like that.”

He felt especially alive when forced to flee St. Mary’s with an hour’s notice ahead of a huge storm. Visibility was sketchy in their small plane, and at one point every alarm on the dashboard went off, including one that blared, “Terrain, pull up!”

Despite that scare, Travis made it home safely to UM, which had helped him land an internship with the Anderson ZurMuehlen accounting firm. The company was purchased by Pinion, a national leader in food and agriculture accounting, and Travis landed a full-time associate accountant position with Pinion’s Missoula office after graduating college. He’s also working to earn his CPA.

“I deal with mostly nonprofits, and I do a lot of 401k and health and welfare plans as well,” he said. “As an auditor, I suppose I might inspire fear in some people, but we try to make those experiences positive. We are mainly reviewing their financial statements or books and telling them whether they have recorded things correctly.”

During the second week in February, he was back on campus recruiting UM students to follow him to Pinion. He spoke in several of Diehl’s tax classes

“Brandon was the first student I got to send to Alaska post-pandemic,” she said. “This year, we plan to send six.”

By Cary Shimek, UM News Service