Five Tips for Filing Your Taxes

By Colette Au

Since taxes aren’t due until April 15th, 2018, filing your 2017 fiscal year taxes might seem a long way away, but I’ve already started preparing for it. I’m in charge of USC Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), a student-run club that is part of a nation-wide IRS volunteering program. We provide free tax preparation services to low- and middle-income individuals and families, including international students and residents living in the neighborhood around USC. If you’re like most students, you probably haven’t needed to file your own tax return (or perhaps your parents did it for you). Although I’m not allowed to give tax advice because most advice is very situational, here are a few tips for students doing taxes for the first time:

  1. If you’re working an on-campus job this year, look out for a W-2

Form W-2 is a slip of paper that employers give you that lists your wages and any taxes withheld for the year. You’ll need this information to input on your tax return, so make sure you save it when it comes in the mail (usually in January or February). For students working on campus, you can elect to download a copy from Workday. If you work multiple jobs, you will have multiple W-2s. Note: if you’re self-employed (for example, doing some freelance work on the side), you’re still supposed to report income, even if the transactions are in cash.

  1. Keep track of your educational expenses

Did you know that it’s possible to lower your tax bill by deducting the cost of required textbooks? Make sure you save your receipts from the Bookstore, because you might be able to shave a couple hundred dollars off of your taxes if you owe anything. However, the tuition and fees deduction isn’t available for people that the IRS calls “non-resident aliens” (most international students). There are also education credits for people who are paying tuition out-of-pocket, and USC will send you a form called Form 1098-T so you can report that information on your tax return.

  1. There are different returns for residents and non-residents

If you’re an international student, don’t make the mistake of not checking if you’re a resident or not. Most international students are considered “non-resident aliens” because they are “exempt individuals” (IRS jargon) and have a different set of tax forms. The IRS uses a residency test to determine if you’re a resident for tax purposes, which you can read more about here.

  1. You might not have to file! But you need to check if you do

Generally, if you’re working an on-campus job, you are only required to file if you make more than a few thousand dollars. Even if you don’t need to file, you should consider filing a return in order to get a tax refund. The IRS has an article called Publication 501 about filing requirements here. If your employer deducts more taxes from your paychecks than you owe at the end of the year, you can get your money back!  

  1. Take advantage of USC resources

If you don’t want to put in the time and effort to learn how to do your taxes on your own, save yourself the hassle. If you meet the income limits, you can get your taxes done by free by students! Most students working in the VITA program are accounting majors like me, and some of us actually enjoy learning about the American tax system.

In summary, filing your taxes in the U.S. can be very complicated. There are exceptions to almost every rule so you have to be careful and assess the facts of your own financial situation before you can correctly file your taxes. If you’re feeling lost in the tax system, it’s okay to ask for help. In fact, it’s better that you do because that last thing you want is the IRS coming after you for filing your taxes incorrectly.

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Colette is a junior in the Leventhal School of Accounting and Marshall School of Business. Born to immigrant parents from mainland China and Hong Kong, she is no stranger to bridging lingual and cultural gaps. As her high school offered an international boarding program, she made friends with classmates from all over the world. At USC, Colette participates in several service-oriented clubs on campus, including as president of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and an e-board member of Project 32 Tutoring. Singing, playing piano and guitar, and eating all kinds of foods (especially dessert) are some of her favorite hobbies. In summer 2018, she will be interning in San Jose at Deloitte, a public accounting firm.

USC Resources for Stress and Anxiety

By Stephanie Wicburg

As someone who has experienced instances of almost crippling anxiety in my life, I know that the avoidance of these issues in conversation is a fact.  Stress and anxiety are just not things that society addresses.  If someone wants to discuss them, it is often either with a professional, or not at all.

For me, the amount of preparation it takes to even do something as simple as making a phone call or socializing with people I don’t know is staggering.  And yet, through my years, I have learned to cope with this part of my life.  I have learned how to be able to function when I feel like I can’t breathe and how to push past it.

But imagine if I were put in a totally new environment.  An environment in which I knew barely anyone.  A place with a culture entirely different from my own, with a language that I do not natively speak.  I have personally never been in this situation, but all the students I have worked with through ALI’s Conversation Groups are experiencing this as I type.

A new place can be incredibly hard to adjust to. I know that it took me several weeks to adjust to USC when I first moved here just last August, and during those weeks, there were several moments when my anxiety took over, and it felt like every little thing was just absolutely overwhelming. Fortunately, however, I had friends and family who I could talk to, as well as an incredibly supportive roommate, and all of the coping methods which I have developed through the years.  These support systems are not something everyone has, however.  Not everyone is taught or is able to figure out ways to help their anxiety, and so stressful situations, such as moving to an entirely new country, can just be beyond overwhelming.

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An Unspoken Language

By Stella Yeung

My grandfather had been creating Chinese art for as long as I can remember. My family would drive to his house, a couple towns over, every weekend. All my mom’s sisters, brothers, nephews, and nieces lived with him, keeping the house in a constant commotion. The house smelled of traditional Chinese dishes and bare feet. During every weekend visit, I begged to go home immediately, as I judged this side of the family who grew up so differently than me. It bothered me that they had mismatched bed coverings and antique art pieces that seemed to be blindly picked up from Goodwill. I pulled at my mom’s sleeves until she told me “Be quiet, we’re leaving soon”. I let out exaggerated groans and sighs until we’d finally leave hours later.

I spoke Chinese-English growing up, but the English side became more prominent as I went through American schooling and watched countless reruns of Full House. I watched enviously as I constantly compared my family to the characters in the show. I wondered why I didn’t have an uncle like John Stamos or a dad like Bob Saget, and why my life had to be so crude.

“Do you know how lucky you are to grow up in America?”

I roll my eyes at my mom because I’ve heard it all before, even though, on the inside, I know I take it all for granted. My mother’s side of the family are all immigrants, including herself. Most of them did not get college degrees and worked in the restaurant business for years after they came to America, just so they could pay bills, support the family, and repeat. Regrettably, I have never had much conversation with this side of my family. Their main focus was to get to America to provide a better life for their kids, and here I was, a non-Chinese speaking Chinese-American with everything laid out for me. The least I could do was learn Chinese, to say thanks, and commend them for their conquered adversity. However, they never fully learned English and I never fully learned Chinese; we were comfortable with how things were and therefore never felt compelled to change. As a result, I sit awkwardly and quietly at family gatherings, picking at food and wishing my relatives would quiet down (yelling is commonplace for their conversations). I am annoyed at their volume of conversation but also envious, because I’m not a part of it. Here we are, sitting, with the same blood running through us, but we are strangers. As a side note, I did go through multiple years of Chinese school, but my mother had to sit with me because I couldn’t understand the teacher.. After a few years, I finally convinced her to stop paying for my Sundays filled with embarrassment and boredom.

So, to keep myself preoccupied while at my grandfather’s house, my tiny self would hobble into my grandfather’s study room where he would be effortlessly gliding ink across parchment. There was parchment on the floor, walls, and tables. Ink and paint brushes were scattered across his desk as well. He would dabble in ornate paintings of mountains or large texts of Chinese. Each brush stroke was placed with precision, grace, and dexterity I wished I could do with such ease. I was an artist myself so I watched him with awe. Since I couldn’t read Chinese, I never quite knew what the words he wrote meant, but my young wide-eyed self knew they looked beautiful.

While I never lived in rural China and was never forced to farm for a living, I also found that same escape in art as my grandfather once did. When he wasn’t drawing, he was scowling. Veins thriving from his neck and brows constantly furrowed. He spoke in complaints and accusations. The only time I saw his face relax, and his muscles loosen, was when he was at his desk, in his study, with his brushes in hand and parchment in front of him. I stare at his concentration, the clear transparency in his eyes as his presence was no longer at his home but somewhere far off where he felt at peace. I smile because I know exactly where he is. He later passed his paintbrushes onto me because he knew I was an artist just like he was. Oddly enough, nobody else in our family had the same shared fire to create as we did.

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