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Taxation + Immigration

Helping international students file their taxes… and keep their visas

Two of the most discussed issues of the last 13 months—taxes and immigration—showed up together in the same room at Suffolk this winter. Again and again.

Starting in January 2018, 35 graduate and undergraduate student volunteers from the Sawyer Business School worked every Wednesday and most Saturdays to help more than 400 people file around 1,000 tax returns at the Suffolk Free Tax Prep Clinic. Now in its fourth year, the clinic serves current and recent Suffolk students, lower income neighbors of the University, and, more significantly this year, international students, teachers, and research fellows.

“Whether or not they earn income, people holding an F, J, M, or Q visa need to file tax forms every year,” said Professor of Taxation Michaele Morrow, site coordinator for the center. “A lot of people don’t know that, which isn’t totally surprising. If you think about coming over here from another country, maybe learning another language, getting used to living in a new city, the last thing on your mind is anything related to the US tax system, which can be pretty irksome.”

F, J, Q, or M:
What’s your visa?

The US Government’s list of non-immigrant visas is an alphabet soup of international bureaucracy. Here are some that the Tax Prep Clinic sees most often:

  • F: All international students attending colleges, high school, seminaries, conservatories, and other institutions
  • J: Professors, research scholars, au pairs, camp counselors, and teachers
  • Q: Participants in international cultural exchange programs
  • M: Participants in a vocational or other recognized nonacademic institution other than a language training program

In fact, the US government could use failure to file as a reason not to renew an expiring visa. This is why Morrow and her volunteers push to get the word out to students and researchers, not just at Suffolk but at colleges and universities across the Boston area, including Harvard, Northeastern, MIT, and Tufts.

“Sometimes we’ll have someone at the clinic who’s working on a ground-breaking cancer treatment but is scared about how to file their taxes,” Morrow said. “So we tell them: ‘This is one thing we can do for you. You don’t have to worry about learning the entire US tax system.’ They can come to the clinic while they’re in the country working on their research, and we can take that tax-filing burden off their minds.”

professor assisting students in the background

Prepping the preppers

With such a complicated issue, one would assume the student preparers need to be experts. Actually, when the clinic starts, most of them have never filled out a tax return for anyone—let alone an international student holding a complicated visa.

“They usually look completely shell-shocked,” says Morrow with a laugh, describing the students on the first day of training. “They’re scared of the technical capability they think they’re going to need. They’re scared of making a mistake. They’re scared of saying the wrong thing to the taxpayer. They’re scared that they’re going to work too slowly, miss something, and let everyone down.”

But Morrow and her assistant site coordinators, Sharon Huang and Jeremy Moreau, both of whom are graduate students in the Master of Science in Taxation program, explain what to expect, the kinds of questions to ask clients, what to look for on the returns, where the mistakes might come. One piece of advice Morrow gives her students? Count on your fingers. It’s a familiar and calming way to determine how many years an international student has been here.

students assisting with taxes

Things ramp up fast. The students take three prep classes on resident and nonresident taxation and then must pass three required certification exams. After that, clients start coming in the door.

“I was scared,” confessed Hana Abdelkhalek, MSA ’18, who took the class to get more experience with taxes and tax forms before starting a job this spring at a local accounting firm. “But I ask for assistance whenever I’m hesitating. And it helps that Professor Morrow or one of the assistant site coordinators reviews every return.”

The students get the hang of it very quickly. By the second or third clinic, they’re working assuredly and efficiently, a trend that continues up to the final day.

“The students have to think on their feet,” Morrow said. “They have to deal with problems that they might never have seen before, both technical tax issues and personal issues with the taxpayers. So by the end of the tax season, they really do feel like, ‘OK, I encountered some things I didn’t think I could handle, But, you know? I can handle it.’”

tax clinic classroom

Going through that process firsthand with real people who are actual clients—a typical Suffolk experience—adds value far beyond just being able to fill out a Form 1040NR without making a mistake.

“In a way, completing the tax return almost becomes a byproduct,” said Morrow. “The real takeaway is about developing confidence and self-reliance and the feeling that they can do this. You really do see that evolution over the course of just a few months.”

“When we first started the three weeks of training,” said Abdelkhalek, “I thought, ‘This is not going to happen.’ But after the first client, everything changed. The second time was even easier. I feel that I’m getting more confident and learning a lot with each client. Now I want to do my own tax return and have the class review it for me.”