Sometimes in the course of performing presidential duties, I learn wonderful things about the work of our students and programs. Even though I have been at the College for almost 21 years, I still find myself surprised by the work of our staff, students, and faculty. I had such an experience last week when I needed to read and sign our application for the 2014 New York Life Higher Education Civic Engagement Award.
We focused our application on the success of our Community Partnership in Action (CPIA) program. This initiative began in 2002 as an intentional effort by the College to create a collaborative and reciprocal multilayered partnership with the city of Norristown. Norristown (the county seat for Montgomery County) is located seven miles from campus and is one of the most economically challenged municipalities in Pennsylvania. CPIA was created to connect faculty and student scholarship, educational field placement, and volunteer service with the Norristown community to address the needs of both the Norristown community and the College. CPIA was created through the efforts of the BMC Civic Engagement Office and the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, and is sponsored by the InterAgency Council of Norristown.
Through CPIA, Bryn Mawr community members are involved with schools, women’s and family services, domestic violence prevention, legal services, community mental health programs, and community development. While the partnership has created many robust connections and opportunities, our application focused on one particularly successful program that has had a meaningful impact on both the Norristown and Bryn Mawr communities, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Since 2003, the Civic Engagement Office has partnered with the Community Action and Development Corporation of Montgomery County (CADCOM) to provide free tax preparation services to low income residents of Montgomery County. Through VITA, BMC students are trained to become certified IRS tax preparers, a valuable skill in many contexts. An emphasis is placed on training volunteers to help CADCOM clients determine if they are eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a tax credit for low to moderate income working individuals and couples, particularly those with children.
In 2012–2013, 30 Bryn Mawr students volunteered with VITA, performing 3,099 hours of service. Volunteers prepared 995 tax returns for Montgomery County residents, including 277 EITC credits. The total amount of EITC dollars returned to CADCOM’s clients was $480,650 and the total amount of refund dollars was $1,353,890. The average refund amount per household was $1,360 and CADCOM surveys revealed that clients put that money to immediate use to pay rent or mortgage and utility bills.
In the application, we state that in creating CPIA, our goal was to stop sending students to the community but rather to begin authentically engaging with the community in ways that are of mutual benefit. Sometimes the benefit of community service can be hard to measure or label, but our connection through VITA provides a wonderful way to make that impact visible and clear.
What could have been a relatively straightforward task of “reading and signing” this application turned out to be a great lesson for me in the deep impact that our civic engagement program creates.