Accounting Students Learn as They Serve

April 19, 2023

EWU accounting students are using experiential learning to address a broad range of needs that strengthen the community.

Among the jobs they’ve taken on is assisting with court-supervised guardianships, the system by which the courts manage finances for those deemed unable to handle them themselves. (An example being the controversial Britney Spears conservatorship from 2008 to 2021). The students help Spokane County meet a state-mandated requirement to audit all open and active guardianships/conservatorships portfolios or trusts, instead of a smaller sampling.

“The EWU students provide a service to the Spokane County community by assisting the Superior Court in protecting one of the most vulnerable populations by auditing annual accountings,” said Ana Fortson Kemmerer, coordinator of the county’s Guardianship Mentoring Program (GMP).

Fortson Kemmerer says that from 2018 through the fall quarter of 2022, 45 EWU accounting students contributed 487 hours auditing a total of 198 guardianship files to help the county with this important work.

Terra Munns is a 21-year-old from Spokane Valley who is earning her master’s degree in accounting. She says participating in the GMP was a “good opportunity” that allowed her to learn more about daily challenges that disabled people experience. “It was definitely good to be a part of our community and see different kinds of lifestyles around Spokane,” she says.

Bill Shaw, the EWU professor of accounting who works with participating students, said students learned to scrutinize receipts and records, identify potential fraudulent expenditures, and report that information to a supervisor. It’s much the same work they will do as professional auditors, Shaw says.

One example involved painstakingly reviewing files and uncovering an odd expense for a four-wheeler and rifle purchased on behalf of a man who is a quadriplegic. As it turns out, the expense was legit. The disabled man was an avid hunter, and the caregiver bought the vehicle to keep him active in his favorite sport.

“The students didn’t really uncover fraud, but they did uncover something that looked very strange,” Shaw says.

Because accounting degrees support a range of careers, Shaw encourages students to try different types of experiential learning to get a feel for the career track that fits best.

In addition to auditing, students can help low-income families and seniors prepare their tax filings through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) offered by Spokane County United Way.

During the 2022 winter quarter, eight IRS certified volunteers from EWU contributed more than 110 hours through VITA. Their work helped taxpayers, including families and seniors of modest means, to realize a total of $480,000 in tax refunds — all while students took a “career test drive.”

“You can drive your career for six weeks basically,” Shaw says. Accounting students are required to take both audit and tax courses, so if they are intentional about the timing, they can test drive both.

That’s exactly what Munns did. She transitioned from guardianship audits during last year’s fall quarter to helping with tax preparation over the winter.

Munns, who also volunteered with VITA as an East Valley High School student, says the program is particularly helpful for low-income households and people who speak English as a second language. “A lot of people are able to do a portion of their taxes by themselves and then they get stuck,” she says.

The VITA work is interpersonal, and clients are grateful for the help, even treating volunteers to donuts at times.

Munns credits the tax preparation project with helping her develop stronger communication skills as she explains complicated tax laws to diverse clients.

The auditing work for the county, in turn, helped her develop a heightened attention to detail and a system for double-checking, she says. “I learned a little bit more about government processes, because this is something I’m interested in as a career.”

In the future, Shaw hopes to expand the students’ outreach to rural areas, where residents in need currently lack access to accounting students qualified to help.

“If we can get this to work well in Spokane for a couple more years, we might be able to go to the larger communities in Eastern Washington and do similar things.”