Now in its fifth year, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) clinic at Trinfo is expanding free tax preparation services this tax season. The clinic has increased student participation, hours, and the total number of returns filed each year since opening in 2018. Under the leadership of Serena Laws, Senior Lecturer in Political Science and the site’s director, the clinic offers free tax preparation services to English and Spanish-speaking clients who make less than $60,000 per year.
In spring 2019, the clinic e-filed 161 returns. Last year, in spring 2022, 461 returns were e-filed at the clinic. In 2023, the clinic is on track to file even more returns. Partway through the season, as of March 11th, 322 returns have been prepared. The clinic’s impressive growth is driven by Laws, site coordinators, and dedicated students. Linda Martinez IDP ’04, a veteran VITA site coordinator, is back this spring managing many of the clinic’s shifts.
In addition to offering tax services to the community, the site serves as an educational opportunity for Trinity students. Students in Laws’ class “Tax Policy and Inequality in Hartford” are trained as IRS-certified tax preparers after gaining a foundational understanding of tax code in the classroom. Students prepare client tax returns at Trinfo, gaining hands-on experience to apply the skills learned in the classroom.
The clinic has also evolved to offer the option of a multi-year experience for students. “Students gain so much knowledge about tax preparation and tax credits, and it seemed a shame for it to end there,” says Laws. “I developed various ways for past students of the class to return, either in leadership roles as Assistant Site Coordinators or Teaching Assistants, or as Research Assistants.”
Nanci Lopez Flores ’23, a research assistant with Professor Laws this semester, loved working at VITA last year and wanted to continue her involvement in her senior year. She reflects, “I am constantly in awe of Professor Laws’ commitment to providing a service that community members should have access to. She simultaneously encourages students to build life skills and embodies determination to help community members save money on tax prep that they could put towards other needs.”
Students who take advantage of the multi-year experience at VITA can earn an experiential certificate as part of the Trinity Plus curriculum. They’re also giving back to other VITA sites in the community. “The experiential certificate requires students to do a 1.0 credit internship doing tax preparation at another VITA site so that we are more explicitly giving back to the VITA network by providing more skilled volunteers,” Laws explains.
Laws’ work with tax policy doesn’t end after tax season is over. Her research project on how taxpayers view the tax filing process, tax credits, and government extends her work throughout the year. In summer 2022, Laws and Liliana Polley IDP ’21 M ’23, who now serves as the Trinity-HMTCA Partnership Manager, conducted 39 interviews in English and Spanish. So far, the research has led to a paper presented at the Conference on Policy Process Research titled, “Policy Feedback and Low-Income Tax Credits: Rethinking Invisibility in the Submerged State.” Student research assistants are continuing to conduct interviews this spring, and Laws has plans to continue this research and her engagement with tax policy advocates in Connecticut.
VITA’s expanded capacity to serve the community over the past five years has made the clinic one of Trinity’s flagship community engagement programs. The clinic’s engagement with hundreds of community members, dozens of students, and with faculty research on an annual basis make it a model example of mutually beneficial community engagement at Trinity.