Esteban Figueroa

Esteban Figueroa, '23

June 9, 2023
Spider brings tax expertise and Spanish fluency to the Richmond community

By Joanne Bong, ’25, Communications Assistant for Equity & Community

For a majority of households, tax season is a source of stress and confusion.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is an initiative of the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg that provides free tax assistance for families and individuals with an income of $60,000 or less. The University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement has partnered with the program since 2012, getting students certified every year to file and review returns.

Sacred Heart Center is the location of one of these tax sites which serves a majority of Spanish-speaking clients. For Sacred Heart, bilingual students like Esteban Figueroa, ‘23, are valuable in providing these assistive services.

Figueroa is enrolled in Professor Joyce van der Laan Smith’s VITA II class which trains him to work as a quality reviewer.

“As quality reviewers, we are able to provide some financial literacy, help people understand the tax filing process, and demystify it because we have the ability to walk people through the tax return,” Figueroa said.

Working with a mainly Spanish-speaking client base, Figueroa is able to leverage both his accounting coursework and Spanish fluency. Students from the University of Richmond’s (Latin American, Latino, & Iberian Studies) LALIS program also volunteer to provide translation services.

“It’s interesting work because you get to see different things you wouldn’t see at the other sites,” Figueroa said. “There's a lot of alternative tax forms because many of the Sacred Heart clients are contract workers and don’t receive typical W-2’s.”

The Sacred Heart Center is a particularly popular tax site across the VITA network, taking anywhere from 20-25 clients a night.

“Volunteering opened my eyes to just how much need there is in the community for financial services that can be done through students like me,” Figueroa said. “Using just a couple hours of our time a week, there is a big impact this program makes. Clients leave with some money that they can use for daily necessities, a better understanding of the tax system, and some knowledge that they can apply for future returns.”

During the 2022 tax season, the Richmond-area VITA program filed around 3,000 returns and helped families receive $2.9 million in total federal refunds. For the volunteers, the program is a great way to gain experience and strengthen communication skills, as well.

“I worked with someone around my age who spoke minimal English. He was a college student at VCU,” Figueroa explained. “Working with someone that was my age made the process a lot more relatable and helped me to understand the perspective of the filer. It was rewarding to realize that everyone is doing their best to understand this complex process of filing and that as students we can help each other out.”

With graduation right around the corner, Figueroa will be working as a consultant at a firm for forensic accounting and litigation support.

“One of the best parts about the VITA program is getting some community experience and being able to translate what we learn in class to real-life situations. It has helped me better understand my field of work and given me skills to bring to my career.”