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Taking It to the Streets

Written by: 
Eileen McCluskey

The students-turned-teachers for this year’s taxpayer workshops included, from left, senior Accountancy majors Xi (Cissy) Chen, Jeffrey Eldridge, Michele Chamberlain, Amon Mohammadi, and Rosa Zarate.

Learning travels both ways in taxpayer workshops

Fifteen undergraduates arrive at the LaCava Center, laptops loaded with PowerPoint presentations, folders filled with handouts. These students in Bentley’s Advanced Taxation course have exhaustively researched their assigned topics, and practiced fielding questions with their professor and classmates. Now it’s time to take their knowledge public.

The proving ground for their expertise is a series of taxpayer workshops designed for small-business owners. Scheduled over two evenings, the free-of-charge sessions attract entrepreneurs who run home construction companies, plumbing and heating services, modest retail operations, and the like. They are not MBAs or accountants; many are new to the business owner role.

“These workshops – and the course – are very much about bringing students closer to their profession,” explains Assistant Professor of Accountancy Tracy Noga, who developed the workshops three years ago in partnership with the Internal Revenue Service. “It’s important to be able to convert complex technical information into easily understood pieces for people who don’t have this technical knowledge.”

Fact Finders

The offerings for 2012 -- Starting Up Your Business, Hiring Help in Your Business, and the two-session Figuring Your Income Tax – welcomed 16 participants in late February and early March. Students faced a flurry of questions about deductions, self-employment taxes, employee hiring classifications, and payroll taxes, among other topics.

“This was a really interesting assignment, because we usually present to our classmates – an audience we’re familiar with,” says Michele Chamberlain ’12. “At the workshop, we spoke directly with people who weren’t necessarily informed about the topics presented, and who could immediately use the information we shared.”

To recruit workshop participants, Noga relies on a network of community-based organizations, such as the Northeast Veteran’s Resource Center, which assists veterans in starting their own businesses; the Waltham and Watertown-Belmont Chambers of Commerce; and the Boston-based Center for Women and Enterprise. The workshops also get a boost from advertising on the IRS website.  

“The IRS has shared a relationship with Bentley University for many years,” notes Mary Hanson, senior stakeholder liaison for the agency. “We’re pleased to serve as a resource and assist with marketing this free event.”

Value Added All Around

The workshops begin with presentations by student teams. Then the floor opens for questions, with Noga standing by ready to help answer the thorniest queries.

David Kelly participated in the taxpayer workshops in 2010, during his senior year as Accountancy major.

“Our team addressed hiring individuals into the business, and I focused on payroll taxes,” recalls Kelly, now a tax accountant with Grant Thornton and pursing Bentley’s MS in Taxation. “Participants wanted to know how to determine whether an individual is an employee or a contractor, or fits into another category – and what the payroll implications are.

“Speaking in public about a complex topic gave me a better understanding of how to parlay my knowledge in ways people can use. That, for me, was the strongest point – not only obtaining new knowledge but also giving that knowledge to others.”

Chamberlain and her team taught the workshop about starting a business. Her particular focus was employer ID issues and mining resources on the IRS website. She sees value in the experience as she prepares to join a private equity firm upon graduation.

“I’ll be calculating valuations,” Chamberlain says of her new job as a financial analyst. “Since good tax strategies help keep returns healthy, the additional knowledge of taxation I’ve gained through the course and the workshops will definitely help me.”

The positive reviews by all sides are sure to keep the workshops on Noga’s syllabus.

“I’ve been delighted with how much the participants appreciate the service we’re providing,” says the professor. “I love the way the students step up to the challenge. They really embrace the project and do an awesome job.”

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