Rachael Petito, 25, from Long Island, N ew York is a senior at SUNY College at Old Westbury where she studies accounting. After graduating this upcoming fall, she will start her master’s program in either tax accounting, accounting or forensic accounting.
On top of her 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. school schedule and commuting, Petito volunteers for a tax program called the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program, that runs through the Bethpage Federal Credit Union (BFCU). The program allows qualified state residents to file their tax return for free.
Brittany Sims: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your time in college.
Rachael Petito: I enjoy being busy, but I also enjoy a nice relaxing weekend with nothing to do but watch Netflix. As a Long Islander, I love being able to drive 20 minutes to the beach or take an hour train ride to NYC.
I love spending my free time with my cousins and exploring Long Island. As far as school goes, I went to Farmingdale State College after graduating high school in 2011 before attending SUNY Old Westbury. I took my time in deciding what my major was, and that was time well spent. Everything seems to be falling into place, which is a great feeling.
BS: What made you want to major in accounting?
RP: I started helping my neighbour with his business invoices when I was 16 years old. As time went by, I grew into the idea of doing accounting as a career. When I attended Farmingdale State College on Long Island, I never really knew what I wanted to do.
So, I decided to take a year off and found a job as an administrative assistant in a certified public accounting office. I worked there for a year, and with the knowledge I learned there, it confirmed my idea that this was what I wanted to do. I knew SUNY Old Westbury had a well-known accounting program and decided to attend there.
BS: What does the program involve?
RP: It’s about a 10-week program, lasting from February to the beginning of April. We would pick a location, whether it be a BFCU banking branch or another location that offers the services on LI and that would be our location for the program.
We have to take certification exams to be officially certified by the IRS in order to prepare taxes. For the last 10 weeks, I would go to the local branch that I chose. From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., I would prepare taxes.
BS: How did you get started with the tax program and why did you want to volunteer for it?
RP: My school regularly sends out emails for different opportunities and events. I saw an e-mail asking for volunteers for the tax program and decided that it would look good on my resume and allow me to gain valuable experience in my career.
BS: What is your role in VITA and how do you become a volunteer?
RP: My role was a Tax Preparer, represented by BFCU. I would sit with clients and view their tax papers (W-2s,1099s, etc.) and prepare their tax return, the same way an accountant at a firm would. I would spend about an hour with each client and help them understand the process and answer any of their questions they have along the way.
For us volunteers, we have to pass three certifications in order to qualify: a Code of Conduct, an interview in-take test that quizzes you on things you should or should not ask a client while getting documents and information and a Basic Certification Exam, which allows you to prepare the most basic tax return.
Higher level certifications are available, but I chose not to take them. The higher the certification, the more advanced return you are allowed to do. As a volunteer, I am not legally allowed to e-file a return. It needs to be reviewed and transmitted by a site coordinator. E-filing a return officially transmits the return to the IRS. As long as there are volunteers willing to help out, the program will be there.
BS: How important is it to you for people who can’t afford to file their taxes for free?
RP: I think it’s an amazing thing that this program exists. I know that an accountant can charge a lot of money to prepare someone’s taxes, and I understand that not everyone can afford it. I saw people that were so grateful that we were able to help them out without a fee. It’s definitely a rewarding feeling. BFCU is well-known on Long Island for caring about our communities and this program definitely shows it.
BS: Anything else you would like to tell others about the program?
RP: It’s a very rewarding experience. I just finished my last day on April 7, and I am actually sad it’s finished. I have become friends with everyone I have volunteered with and gained so much knowledge. I feel more confident in my choice being an accounting major through my helping out with this program.
BS: What is your ultimate career goal?
RP: Ultimately, I’d love to be my own boss and have my own accounting firm. I love the idea of making my own hours and creating a work environment that is still professional but with an atmosphere to be a fun place to work. I want to have an accounting firm where my employees would actually enjoy coming to work and would want to be there for a long time.
BS: How do you manage a full-time school and work schedule and volunteer at the tax program but still find time for yourself?
RP: Honestly, I really didn’t have time for myself. I spent those weeks doing the tax program; I’d wake up, go to school, go to work, back to school, do homework and go to sleep. The only real time I spent by myself was early Saturday mornings and Sundays, which half of those days were for homework.
It felt like the longest 10 weeks ever, but I made it work. I just finished the program, so now I can finally relax and take a day for myself. If you ever feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath. I know it may seem like there is lot may be on your plate with finals coming up. Just a friendly reminder, that you are awesome and you got this!
If you live on Long Island and can’t afford to file your taxes next tax season, check out this program. Petito will be able to help you in the future when you need help with your taxes!