UW program takes law students to remote corners of Alaska
Tax Day can mean different things to different people: stacks of paperwork; evenings at the kitchen table; appointments with the accountant; the rush to the post office to meet the deadline.
For about 20 University of Washington law students, it means a February trip to the frozen tundra.
Each year, in advance of the April income tax filing deadline, UW law students fly to Alaska, hop on bush planes and snowmobiles and travel to remote villages, where they spend a week preparing tax returns at no cost for Alaska Natives.
The volunteers pack in food and laptops, sleep on floors in tribal buildings and schools. Temperatures can reach minus 20 F. There might not be running water. Sometimes there’s only a bucket for a toilet. Work days typically stretch 12 or 14 hours.
Nothing says “remote” like Barrow's sign. Photo by Tony Ramsey
And almost every student will describe the experience like Tony Ramsey does.
“It was the best experience of law school,” said Ramsey, a three-time volunteer and now teacher for the UW Rural Alaska Tax Assistance Program. “Part of it is obviously the adventure of it all. It’s a different way of life up there. And I think everybody comes back convinced of the necessity of this program and how much good it does.”
The students also gain a solid foundation in tax preparation and make what can be a profound difference in the lives of disadvantaged communities. In the 2016 tax year alone, the broader Alaska Business Development Center’s Volunteer Tax and Loan Program, which the UW initiative is a significant part of, generated $7.5 million in refunds to residents of Alaskan villages. The UW students served 15 communities, preparing some 1,700 tax returns and generating more than $2.4 million in refunds.
“You really get to make a difference,” said UW law school alum Jack Brumbaugh, who is volunteering for the program in 2017 for a third time. “Each team might do 200 to 300 tax returns in five days. It brings a lot of money back into the community.”
Scott Schumacher, director of the UW graduate program in taxation, said the Alaska program is a way for the law school to help people in areas far removed from the Seattle campus.
“This allows us to connect with and help a different community,” he said. “It really shows the power of what law can do.”
‘An unbelievable experience’
The program starts with a quarter-long class at UW that Ramsey teaches to train students on tax law and tax return software. Students work on simulated returns and learn case studies with issues specific to Alaska, such as income from commercial fishing and from the permanent fund dividend, an annual payment to residents from oil royalties. After arriving in Anchorage, students get a day of training on Alaska culture and customs, then are dispatched in teams of two to four to villages around the state.
Snowmobiles are a common mode of transportation.Photo by Tony Ramsey
“It was an unbelievable experience. I got to combine two of my passions — being outdoors in extreme climates and doing taxes,” said Brumbaugh. “Many students during law school have few opportunities, outside of the law clinics, to use the skills we learn outside of the classroom. But this program allows students like myself to have a direct and profound impact in a short period of time.”
Angela Foster, who graduated from the UW in 2016, volunteered for the program for two years, working in the same two villages both times. She stayed in tiny Eek, a village of about 300 people that is soon slated to get running water. In Quinhagak, which has fewer than 700 residents, Foster was invited to a local steam house with women villagers, watched a seal being butchered and went ice fishing on a river.
“It gave me a sense of what life there is like, and I feel like I made connections with the clients,” said Foster. “It was a really fulfilling and great learning experience.”
‘Rubber meets the road’
The Alaska Business Development Center (ABDC) launched the Volunteer Tax and Loan Program in 1996 to improve filing compliance among commercial fishers in villages, who often had little access to professional tax assistance and were falling behind on their returns. The program was eventually expanded to other residents in rural communities and grew from seven villages served to more than 125 communities. In 2016, the initiative served more than 10,500 taxpayers in some of Alaska’s most isolated areas.
The UW is among eight out-of-state partner universities providing volunteers for the program. About 30 percent of UW volunteers are in the university’s graduate program in taxation, and the rest are regular law school students. The UW’s involvement started in 2008, when law student Roberta Armstrong learned about the ABDC program and signed up on her own to volunteer. A few years later, the law school developed a course to help students get the program’s required IRS certification.
UW law students attend a lecture in an Alaska classroom.Photo by Tony Ramsey
Ramsey, who is now a tax and estate-planning attorney at a Seattle firm, was hired last year to teach the training class and revamped it for a more hands-on approach.
“Law students have deadlines galore, tons of stress. To be able to go to Alaska for 10 days takes a lot of preparation,” he said. “My goal was to make it as easy as possible for them.”
The UW taxation program pays for recruiting, training and travel costs of law school volunteers, while the Alaska Business Development Center connects volunteers with villages and runs logistics on the ground. Students provide their own sleeping bags and winter gear, and have to pack in their food since many villages don’t have grocery stores, and what few provisions are available are limited and expensive.
The program has benefits on both sides, Ramsey said — Alaska residents get free help with tax return filings and advice, and volunteers get valuable experience.
“As lawyers, we don’t typically prepare tax returns for people. But a tax return is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “It really helped me in my practice, just getting to know about individual income taxes and how they work.”
Jeff Feldman, a UW law professor who lived and practiced law in Alaska for close to 40 years, said the program provides students a rare opportunity to see a traditional way of life that has remained largely unchanged for generations.
“These are communities that are only occupied by Alaska Natives, people whose food is largely acquired from hunting and fishing,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary experience for the students.
“It’s like being in the Peace Corps, except that instead of drilling wells or digging latrines, they’re doing tax returns.”
Participants in the UW Rural Alaska Tax Assistance Program pose for a photo. Photo by Tony Ramsey