MISSOULA – Kent Swift has more than 450 connections on LinkedIn.
The University of Montana professor emeritus in the College of Business finds it particularly gratifying that the majority of the those are his former students.
“I like to keep in touch, see where they are now and the many places their accounting degree has taken them,” Swift said. “Our graduates are in every accounting job there is and in places all over the country.”
Swift, who has been teaching accounting and tax law to Montana students for the better part of his life, said many received their first public accounting experience through UM’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.
The program, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, trains UM undergraduate and graduate accounting majors to prepare and file tax returns for community members who make less than about $57,000. Sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service, the program is free to the public and runs for six Saturdays every February and March.
Clients represent a broad swath of the community – from refugees who are first time tax filers to international students requiring a deep knowledge of international tax treaties for an accurate filing.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Swift and Clem Lockman, a UM account alumnus, VITA site coordinator and local CPA, committed to delivering the program this year safely and according to Missoula City-County Health Department guidelines.
“We had to make changes this year, of course, but we knew how important this program is to our community,” Lockman said. “We agreed we had to find a way to make it happen.”
Instead of face-to-face appointments, participants book an appointment online and the tax filing is done in a separate room. UM students call the clients directly for questions, instead of meeting in person.
In previous years, Lockman said, “There would be a line out the door and down the sidewalk.” This year, the appointments booked up within days.
On any given year, UM’s VITA program files close to 600 federal returns and about as many state returns, Lockman said. Collectively, the returns net about $600,000 in individual federal returns and close to $200,000 for individual state returns, all at no cost to the taxpayer.
“That’s money going directly back into the community every year,” Swift said. “Those are funds that are spent in our downtown, our restaurants and stores.”
But perhaps more than the funds generated for local people, the real value is in the career experience for UM students learning to work for a diverse clientele. Students also receive academic credit for their volunteer service.
Students take Swift’s individual tax course in preparation for volunteering and are required to complete the training materials supplied by the IRS.
“Tax law is quite complicated, and there are so many things students need to know,” he said. “There’s a lot of specialized training needed to do this.”
For example, he said, understanding the federal and state stipulations from the CARES Act and income from the stimulus checks are aspects that made preparing tax documents more complicated this year.
As the VITA site coordinator, Lockman reviews and vets returns and Swift is available to answer any questions.
Carley Dedominicis, a UM master’s student in accounting from Calgary, Alberta, is volunteering for the VITA program for a third year. Dedominicis completed an undergraduate degree in accounting from UM and applied for the one-year Master’s of Accountancy Program last year. In 2019, The Accounting Report ranked UM’s bachelor’s and master’s accountancy programs in the top 25 in the country.
She said the hands-on experience VITA provided has shaped an interest in nonprofit accounting and helped her connect the work in the classroom with serving working people.
“A lot of the class work is really technical and formulaic,” she said. “What’s so interesting about the VITA program is that stuff you learn, like charity contributions and pension distributions, come up a lot, and it feels great to have that training and knowledge.”
This year, Dedominicis mentors other VITA volunteers, and she plans to sit for the CPA exam this summer. UM regularly ranks nationally for its first-time pass rate on the CPA exam.
Dedominicis said the guidance she receives from Swift and Lockman play a large role in her job prospects and a well-rounded understanding of public accounting.
“Dr. Swift is a phenomenal teacher and mentor. He’s funny, tells jokes in class and brings in companies and former students that have had successful careers,” she said. “You just know that he really loves teaching and his students.”
Lockman, who Dedominicis calls “a stickler for accuracy, and rightly so,” participates in the VITA clinics alongside Swift. He checks the returns for accuracy – sometimes staying up late at night at his own house filing returns or going the extra mile to answer a question about a particular return for a student. With about a 90% accuracy rate, Lockman said the UM VITA program has received high marks from the IRS for accuracy and running a strong program.
For Lockman, who was a UM student VITA volunteer years ago and remembers filing returns with pencils and only a handful of computers, the VITA program is a critical community service that places UM students as experts.
“The program has stuck with me all these years,” Lockman said. “It means something to me. To see these young people develop the confidence and experience in talking to strangers about their financial picture, it’s very rewarding.”
Swift said the experience VITA provides is another reason why outside employers are eager to hire UM students.
“Businesses need accountants in Baker, Montana and in San Francisco,” he said. “It’s an in-demand skill set almost anywhere in the world, and employers really like Montana kids, because they know how to work hard. We have a lot of alumni in Big Four accounting firms, and plenty who chose to stay in Montana or elsewhere. The good news for students is that we can fulfill that supply.”
Jenny Lavey, UM News Service
Contact: Kent Swift, emeritus professor of accounting, UM College of Business, 406-243-418 email@example.com; Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.