The single mom sat in front of Olga Tsygankova, ’19 MBT, told her story, and sobbed. She was trying to clean up her life but was in tax debt, she explained. And she didn’t want to fall deeper behind with the IRS, which is why she had come to the free tax clinic at Creekside Community Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, on this Tuesday night.
Tsygankova listened, prepared the tax return, and watched as her previously distraught client began to relax. This was why the Ukrainian immigrant had signed up to work at the clinic in the first place—to relieve the anxiety caused by what can be an overwhelming and daunting task, particularly for those in trying circumstances.
“I felt like that’s what she needed: someone to listen, not judge, and just get it done for her in a respectful manner,” says Tsygankova, recalling one of her most memorable shifts as a volunteer for the local nonprofit Prepare + Prosper. “Not judging what she’d done in the past.”
Tsygankova is a tax analyst for CHS who is living out her decade-old dream of attending the University of Minnesota as a first-year student in the Carlson School Master of Business Taxation Program. When someone from Prepare + Prosper visited her MBT class in search of volunteers, she saw it as a way to pay forward the assistance she had received since first arriving in Minnesota in 2006 through the University’s Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee (MAST) program.
“I always wanted to give back,” says Tsygankova, who studied business administration at Lugansk National Agrarian University in her homeland before participating in the MAST program. “I feel like I was very fortunate with meeting the right people at the right time, ever since I came to the U.S.”
A winding road
At the top of that list of people is the Eisele family, who hosted Tsygankova during her 18 months as an international exchange student. As part of the MAST program, she worked at the family’s greenhouse in Lakeville, Minnesota, during the spring and summer and took classes at the University in the fall and winter. But the Eiseles, whose fifth-generation business dates back to the early 1900s, were more than just her employers—they hosted her for holidays, invited her to their family cabin in Wisconsin, took her fishing (one of Tsygankova’s favorite pastimes), and helped her acclimate to a new culture.
“It couldn’t have been any better, honestly,” says Tsygankova, who still drives down to Lakeville to help on Saturdays during peak selling months.
After getting her bachelor’s degree in accounting at Metropolitan State, she had hoped to land a job at a certified public accounting firm. Instead, facing a difficult job market, she took a job with the Minnesota Department of Revenue’s sales tax division … and discovered it suited her perfectly. She had loved working with numbers ever since she was little, and she found the multitude of rules, exceptions, and exemptions fascinating.
Tsygankova moved into the private sector with CHS in 2015, a shift that’s further fed her curiosity by exposing her to the litany of tax consequences that affect a Fortune 100 company across different sectors and states. CHS also provided tuition reimbursement, prompting Tsygankova to rekindle her ambition of attending the University, one that dated back to her time in the MAST program. She started the MBT Program last fall and is enjoying learning about different types of taxes outside of her current professional focus of excise tax.
“It’s a different level. The instructors and many students have work experience in the field of taxation, which makes course material and class discussions more interesting and relevant to my job.”
- Olga Tsygankova, ’19 MBT
Paying it forward
Her volunteer work with Prepare + Prosper is also utilizing another interest she discovered while working for the state: outreach. She used to lead taxpayer education programs on sales tax for small business owners and accountants, sessions that allowed her to explain complex topics in plain language. That experience made her an ideal fit for Prepare + Prosper, which provides free tax preparation and financial services for low-income families and individuals across the Twin Cities metro area.
Kelly Quicksell, Prepare + Prosper’s volunteer resources manager, says the nonprofit has recruited Carlson School students for at least the past decade by establishing relationships with faculty members such as Tammy Naples, the senior lecturer who taught Tsygankova’s Tax Accounting Methods and Periods class last fall. Prepare + Prosper provides IRS-certified training, so previous tax experience isn’t a prerequisite.
But having knowledgeable volunteers like MBT students is a bonus, Quicksell says. In return for their work, volunteers “learn a lot about their Twin Cities community, they learn a lot from other volunteers, and they kind of get in that groove of wanting to give back and wanting to help.”
Tsygankova says she enjoys seeing who she’s helping firsthand and the instant gratitude that comes with providing a tangible service for those in need.
“Just seeing their reaction—just suddenly feeling so much better, OK it’s done, it’s not too bad, it’s over—it feels really good,” she says.