Phillip Hernandez and Danyelle Graves use the knowledge they gained at UNT to help others

Phillip Hernandez and Danyelle Graves

Phillip Hernandez and Danyelle Graves

UNT student Phillip Hernandez has always wanted to help the Denton community in some way because his faith has taught him to serve others, but he wasn't sure what he could do.

When he heard about an opportunity through his church to assist those in need, he realized he could use the knowledge and skills he'd learned at UNT to help others.

UNT not only instructs students academically -- the university also encourages involvement and service in the community. Since this is a large part of what UNT stands for, many students find ways to participate in volunteer work and service in their personal lives. Once Hernandez, a graduate student studying accounting, learned that volunteers were needed to help low-income families in the Denton area with their tax returns, he didn't hesitate.

"I wanted to serve Denton in some way and since I am an accounting student, I knew it was something I could do," Hernandez says.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA), offered through United Way of Denton County, gives free tax assistance for low- to moderate-income individuals and families making $50,000 or less a year. Volunteers are trained and must pass a certification exam before they can help.

VITA is hosted at five locations in Denton, including Vision Ministries, which is where Hernandez signed up for VITA. This is the first year it has participated in the program, and traffic at the site has produced an impressive number of requests.

On the first day he volunteered, Hernandez met with a family of five and determined that they could expect a tax refund.

Satisfaction in volunteering

Hernandez says families receive a larger refund when using the VITA program because it's a free service so they don't have to use any of their refund to pay for the tax preparation work.

"Sometimes the refund amount equals eight months of rent for them," Hernandez says. "I'm glad we are able to offer them tax assistance for free; otherwise, they would have to pay somewhere else and get a smaller refund."

Danyelle Graves, a UNT senior majoring in social work, is an intern at United Way this semester working with the community impact coordinator to get things ready for the tax preparation sessions. She also quality checks the tax returns after the volunteers are finished. Graves is volunteering her time at VITA through her social work practicum class.

She says she enjoys seeing the looks on the faces of family members when they hear how much they are getting back as a refund. Graves worked with a family of six to get a significant amount of money back -- and she could tell it lifted a huge burden when they heard the news.

"Many places charge a lot for this service," Graves says. "I enjoy volunteering for this program because the families we help don't have to pay anything for our work."

Classroom experiences prepare for public service

As a Spanish minor, Graves looks for opportunities to integrate the language into social work. Her internship at United Way has been the perfect position to use the Spanish skills she's learned at UNT.

She has been able to use what she learned in the classroom to help clients, and she also gets to learn more of the language as she converses with the families.

"I've learned a lot in my social work classes about building rapport with clients, and engaging them so they feel at ease," Graves says. "Although taxes are not necessarily a problem solving process, it is important to make clients feel comfortable. I'm able to practice using Spanish in a different context through the VITA program, and I've learned how to converse about different topics."

Hernandez, who is completing his bachelor's degree from UNT along with his masters, says that lessons learned in the UNT classroom also helped prepare him for his volunteer work. His undergraduate accounting classes at UNT helped prepare him for the exams he took to be a volunteer at VITA. He had to pass basic and intermediate tests before he could serve.

Lydia Radnik, lecturer in the Department of Accounting, was Hernandez's favorite professor as an undergraduate student. She taught him the basics in accounting, which gave him a firm foundation for his current graduate classes.

"It's obvious that Ms. Radnik cares about her students," Hernandez says. "She tries really hard to prepare students for the real world and their future."

Radnik gives her students real-world application topics in class. She brings in guest speakers throughout the semester, and she encourages students to apply for internships while they are working on their degree.

Looking towards the future

With the help of the Career Center on campus, Hernandez has a full-time job lined up after he graduates this May. He starts at Whitley Penn, one of the region's most prestigious accounting firms, this August. He plans to study for the CPA exam this spring and take the test this summer before he starts his new position.

He feels more confident about working with clients at his new job because of his experience in the VITA program and the skills he learned at UNT. He feels that it's helping to prepare him for client-facing opportunities.

Graves plans to work in an orphanage in Bolivia as a social worker after she graduates this May. She's so excited to go, she already bought her plane ticket.

Originally, Graves hadn't planned to go to college after high school, because she wanted to do mission work. But she's glad that she decided to come to UNT. If she hadn't, she would not have learned about the Bolivia opportunity through a UNT friend nor would she have gotten the experience of her United Way internship.

"UNT set up the internship with United Way through my social work practicum class," Graves says. "UNT has been a great place to learn from professors who have experience in their fields. It has also provided a great opportunity to build community through student organizations."

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