VERMILLION, S.D. – Students from the University of South Dakota School of Law traveled to Alaska Feb. 8-15 as part of the School of Law's Tax Practicum, providing pro bono legal services to several remote Native Alaskan communities.
Preparation for the tax clinic started in October as students began their substantive tax studies with USD law professor Ramon Ortiz, who organizes and leads the trip. The preparation continued online through the winter break, when students completed a rigorous Advanced Tax Training from the IRS' Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. At the beginning of the spring semester, students completed their Alaska-specific studies, which included additional substantive law lessons as well as weekly tax assignments. Participants in the clinic included second-year law students Abby Kolar and Shelby Webb as well as third-year law students Brianna Haugen, Alex Braun, Austin Schaefer, Cody Miller, Crystal Duneman and Nolan Welker.
The students’ first day after their travel to Alaska included an orientation seminar in Anchorage on Alaskan Native cultures and an additional brief on substantive tax law. Students also met their teams' liaison leaders and prepared the equipment and supplies to take as they traveled to rural Alaska. They then split into groups, assisting a total of 651 clients during the seven-day long trip to two remote areas of Alaska, including travel to the Yukon Delta and north of the Arctic Circle.
“It was a practical hands on experience while also being culturally immersed in rural Alaska, “ said Webb. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
One group assisted the Gwich'in Athabaskan First Nations villages of Ft. Yukon and Arctic Village. The other group assisted the Central Alaskan Yupik villages of Hooper Bay, Napaskiak, and Oscarville. The Central Alaskan people are one of the largest groups among Alaska Natives and Yupik is the second most spoken native language in the United States after Navajo.
"Our students provided a wealth of tax law education and, through this IRS and Native Alaskan-supported program, assisted with the analysis, preparation, and review of personal income and business tax situations,” said Ortiz. "This included briefing clients on steps to prevent tax controversies, analyzing tax law implications of blended-family circumstances, and separating subsistence living versus business income activities."
Students were also immersed in local cultures, learning from community elders and leaders as well as sharing in crafts, food, language and traditional activities. They also experienced the harsh winter conditions of central and northern Alaska including visiting a winter dog sled camp, experiencing the frozen shorelines of the Bering Straits and the frozen lowlands and fishing villages of the Yukon Delta.
“I would recommend anyone try this trip. With all the training and support we received, they give you all the tools you need to be successful in the field,” said Webb.