As The University of Alabama continues to grow, the Honors College has created several new service-learning courses like Poverty, Faith and Justice in America. Designed as a dual impact initiative, the course aims to influence student thinking while also making a hands-on difference across the state through free tax preparation.
After taking an IRS certification test, students enrolled in the course are placed in the field serving as SaveFirst volunteer tax preparers, Heather Christensen, coordinator for the course, said.
SaveFirst is a statewide initiative through Impact Alabama where college students from 16 campuses are trained to interact with and provide cost-free tax preparation for low-income families, particularly those found eligible for an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refund.
Through this role, students work in a setting not readily available to most college students, providing them with insight into deeply rooted socioeconomic issues.
The EITC component, implemented by the federal government, is intended to combat poverty by providing additional support for families in need.
“Volunteering at the SaveFirst tax sites really opens many students’ eyes to what living in poverty looks like,” Christensen said. “The single mother of two who works three jobs and attends night classes and the elderly couple living off his social security check and her part-time wages. They meet hard-working Alabamians that really appreciate having high-trained volunteers prepare their taxes at no cost.”
Students gain a specific set of skills from the course, a result of interaction outside the normal collegiate activities.
Meg Tebbs, a recent UA graduate, currently serves as volunteer coordinator for Impact Alabama, the nonprofit organization through which SaveFirst operates. Tebbs also took the course in her time as an undergraduate.
“One taxpayer I worked with was a working mother with two children, and she made $20,000 a year,” Tebbs said. “She was putting her daughter through college, and her daughter was a first-generation college student. It was awesome to see how hard she was working to contribute to her daughter’s education.”
In addition to tax preparation in mid-January and February, Christensen said students also participate in the FocusFirst initiative. This program, another Impact Alabama effort, provides free vision screenings to children enrolled in Headstart day cares in economically disadvantaged communities.
Aside from serving in the community, students engage in a series of thought-provoking classroom discussions, led by Stephen Black, director of the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility.
Tebbs said these discussions focus on perceptions and misperceptions of poverty through varied readings.
“We looked at education pieces, and we also had a big focus on predatory industries relating to people living in poverty – title loans, payday loans and also the commercial tax preparation industry,” Tebbs said.
Students also examine ideas on a more personal level through discussions of faith and obligation as related to poverty.
“The course explores the ways faith can affect our response to poverty and inform our understanding of justice,” Christensen said.
This course is available to Honors College students of any class standing as UH 331 and to junior and senior students as MGT 491.
Although these sections are full for spring 2014, volunteer opportunities are still available through both Impact Alabama and the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility.