Imagine being in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language. Now imagine trying to prepare a tax form from that country, and remember: a return visa depends on it.
This is the situation many international students, faculty and staff members face each year, said Gary Carter, associate director of graduate tax studies. He said about 4,000 to 5,000 international students find themselves in this plight annually.
“Even if the students don’t make money, they still have to file a return,” he said.
So Carter, along with the International Student and Scholar Services and the Internal Revenue Service, created a program through which international students could have their tax forms prepared for free.
“There’s such a need for this sort of thing,” Carter said.
The program has been very successful in years past. Operating three hours a night, once a week, Carter said his volunteers still did not have enough time to help everyone.
“They’re lined up at noon, putting their names on a sheet to get help. And we don’t start until 6 p.m.,” he said. “But it’s hard to turn them away when there’s no place else for them to go,” he said.
This year international students can get help with their taxes beginning Jan. 30. The free service operates every Thursday until April 11, from 6 to 9 p.m., in Wilson Library.
But Carter suggests people looking for help come in the early months, to avoid crushing lines during April.
Although students can prepare their own forms, Carter said there are other things to consider.
For example, many foreign countries have treaties with the United States. The treaties sometimes allow for lower or higher rates of taxation for internationals.
“The United States has 31 treaties with different countries,” Carter said. “Basically, there’s 32 different ways to fill out a form.”
Having experience with taxes doesn’t necessarily help, Carter added.
“These forms are so different from what (U.S.) residents do,” he said. “For these people, it’s much more complicated … they’re coming into a foreign country — I sympathize with them.”
Most of the volunteers preparing the forms are current or former University students, Carter said.
One of the volunteers, Jonathan Hobbs, graduated from the University in 1995 and said he has returned every year to help out.
“There was a real need for help, and I thought there would be an opportunity to gain some real experience in the tax world,” Hobbs said.
“It’s nice helping people get back some of the money that’s been withheld, that they might not have otherwise gotten,” he said.
Hobbs currently works for one of the big six accounting firms in the Twin Cities, and said he puts his volunteering experience to work on a regular basis.
“I certainly do that kind of work, so there’s some definite application in my profession,” said Hobbs. “I’m basically an international tax accountant.”
Hobbs said he wants students to realize the importance of filing a tax return.
“I think that’s important for students to realize — that it’s not just a convenience for students to file tax forms, it’s the law,” Hobbs said.
Carter and another recent Carlson School of Management graduate, Tom Nesseth, were the only two volunteers to make it to every tax preparation session. Nesseth said that he wished more people would volunteer.
“I know there weren’t nearly enough volunteers because we had a line. I bet we had 50 people on a waiting list that got turned away every night,” he said.
He said he was planning on volunteering again this year, because it was such a positive experience.
“It really turned out to be a quite enjoyable experience,” said Nesseth. “The reason I’d like to go back and do it this year is I really enjoyed it, and it’s really fun to help people. Everyone I dealt with was very helpful, friendly and polite.”
Nesseth added that volunteering was not all about work.
“Meeting people was fun, but it’s even better than that, because you’re meeting people from all over the world,” he said. “Since I’m not getting paid, I got an opportunity to get a little small talk in with all the business talk. It was really interesting.”
Although many of the volunteers were surprised by the high turnout for assistance, one student said he was surprised in a different way.
Brady O’Connell, a 1995 graduate of the University, said he was “surprised there weren’t more people there. I know there are a lot of foreign students who go to the U, and it’s a free service.” He agreed with Carter that people should take advantage of the service sooner instead of later. “I think for the people who get out there quicker, it won’t be so much of a rush,” he said.
O’Connell said the most enjoyable part of volunteering was knowing he was helping.
“You’re helping people who really appreciate it,” he said. “The income tax forms, even the ones you and me deal with, are difficult to understand. Just helping them to understand that, when English is second language, is great.”
Carter said the appreciation the students show makes volunteering worthwhile.
“It’s just overwhelming, the masses of people coming in, when we’ve got maybe four or five preparers,” said Carter. “I had no idea what I was getting into. At most preparation sites, people sit around waiting for someone to come in, and then someone helps them. This site is different. It’s just a mob scene.”
Carter said he hopes more students will volunteer this year. He said it is a wonderful opportunity to gain valuable tax experience.
But one of his volunteers put it more simply.
“When you get those lines you feel bad turning them away,” said Nesseth. “It’s an experience — volunteering of any type — I don’t know how it couldn’t make a person feel good.”