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Campus & Community

UMD Program Makes Filing Returns Less Taxing

Student-Run Tax Assistance Takes the Angst out of April 15 for UMD Community, Residents

By Maggie Haslam

Samuel Handwerger and three students work on taxes

From left, TerpTax volunteers Ryan Sprague ’26 and Maisie Wartzack ’25 and lecturer Samuel Handwerger assist first-time participant Hongjie Ke Ph.D. ’24 with filing taxes.

Photo by Riley N. Sims

After weeks of plowing through W-2s, I-9s and 1040s, accounting and finance double major Deven Verma ‘25 was feeling almost cocky about his speed and acumen as a new volunteer for the University of Maryland tax assistance program, TerpTax. Then he met Termite.

The Baltimore woman—who insisted Verma call her by her street name—juggled several small businesses in the Cherry Hill neighborhood. But when it came to taxes, she was struggling. Verma spent nearly three months over email with Termite to compile and organize her documentation and file before deadline.

“It was a considerable amount of work, but it was worth it,” he said. “People come here and are so grateful for this service. And at the end of tax season, it feels really good to help so many people, to make it a little bit easier.”

Verma is one of around 40 student volunteers this year who are forgoing some weeknight workouts or hanging with friends to help fellow students, alums and local residents wade through the United States’ convoluted tax system. Every weeknight from the end of January until well after “T-Day”, students meet with clients needing assistance, under the careful oversight of Samuel Handwerger, CPA, a 30-year tax veteran and Robert H. Smith School of Business lecturer.

“I really wanted to do something to give back as part of the university’s commitment to service,” said Handwerger. “And it was just a natural for me.”

He launched TerpTax in 2015 after then-accounting Chair Martin Loeb suggested reviving a defunct UMD tax assistance program to help people around the community. Handwerger conducted a trial run with just six undergraduate student volunteers helping 40 people complete their returns. By 2023, the number of clients ballooned to 1,100.

TerpTax isn’t vastly different from what you’d find at H&R Block—other than it’s free. The organization offers a spectrum of services, from tax forms and how-to-videos to full tax filings for U.S. citizens and residents, as well as non-resident aliens. Appointments book up quickly (they are listed as a community resource on the IRS website), but new services added this year have expanded their reach, said Handwerger. Through the organization’s website, TerpTax now offers asynchronous help as well as a “DIY option” with IRS-sponsored software.

Tax filing can be a miserable business, particularly if you owe money—but the volunteers come back year after year, often inspired by Handwerger’s enthusiasm and willingness to help. The organization is run by undergraduates, who learn the ropes as freshmen and sophomores with the opportunity to be team leaders—and earn a small stipend—by their third year. Handwerger is there most evenings to answer questions and offer encouragement.

Seven weeks before Tax Day on one Tuesday night, the operation was at a steady hum, with volunteers helping a handful of local residents in-person and other clients on Zoom. Team leaders moved deftly between volunteers to troubleshoot. The lab gets “exponentially busier” as April 15 closes in, said Handwerger.

About a quarter of the university’s 3,500 international students rely on TerpTax; other clients include a large chunk of graduate students and nearby residents who make under $65,000 a year. One longtime TerpTax client always completes his return by hand and asks volunteers to file it for him electronically.

“Amazingly, he gets it 100% right each time,” said Handwerger.

A single filing for a full-time student can take around 30 minutes, but the more dependents, money and circumstances that enter the picture, the more complicated returns become. Volunteers pore over paperwork for families with dual incomes or dependents; students with taxable grants and scholarships; and residents, like Termite, who owns businesses.

For the past several years, Handwerger has also taken volunteers into the community to assist low-income and elderly residents, including at Friendship Terrace, an independent living center in Washington, D.C., and Cherry Hill in Baltimore. It’s an opportunity for students to work with a variety of clients and gain some of the soft skills that marry so well with number crunching.

And while volunteers have become competent and confident in navigating U.S. tax code through their experience, some would-be supporters remain a little dubious. Maisie Wartzack ’25 has been serving clients for two seasons—but her mother still won’t let her fill out her tax returns, insisting instead on the family accountant.

“It’s not really great advertising,” she said. “But I’m hopeful for next year.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.