Sarah Louise Smith didn’t grow up dreaming about tax returns. Her parents didn’t work for the IRS or serve as high-powered tax attorneys. For Smith, taxes were not an inherent passion—they were something she learned to love over time.
Following graduation, Smith returned to her home state of Alabama and joined a new non-profit called Impact Alabama. Her job was to teach college students to help low-income families file their tax returns. She built the program from scratch and served 300 families in just the first year.
Nearly a decade later, Impact Alabama has turned into Impact America—a national non-profit that works to match college students with community needs. Smith serves as the organization’s Executive Director, overseeing a 50-plus person staff and operations in four different states.
Her journey stands in contrast to the notion that the key to professional fulfillment is to find your one true passion. By devoting herself to doing good work and helping her community, Smith found happiness in the most unlikely of places: tax filings.
I caught up with Smith in Tuscaloosa to hear about her journey from Alabama to Williams and back and to learn more about her work with Impact America.
What has your journey after Williams looked like?
I grew up in Tuscaloosa and always assumed that I would go to the University of Alabama. As I started looking at colleges, however, it became clear that I needed to get out of the Southeast. I went to Williams and had a great experience meeting people from all over the country and all over the world.
Many of the people at Williams, however, had never met anyone from Alabama before, and I felt like I had to defend my home state a lot. In doing that, I came to appreciate more the community that raised me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation, but I thought, ‘It might be nice to go home for a year or two.’
The summer before my senior year, I ended up meeting Stephen Black, who is the grandson of Hugo Black, the Supreme Court justice. He had just started this non-profit called Impact Alabama. The idea was to engage college students to address community needs like providing vision care for preschool-aged kids. He wanted to start a program to train college students to prepare tax returns for low-income families. We met for breakfast, and after a 30-minute conversation, he asked me if I wanted to come back to Alabama and run the tax program.
I knew nothing about taxes, but when you go to Williams, you learn that you can do anything. I built the whole training program, met with community partners, and recruited college students and got them excited about doing the project.
We ran the program for the first time in January 2007. We trained 120 college students and ended up helping 300 families do their taxes.
In the middle of tax season, I told my boss that I wanted to stay on. Two years turned into three, and three into four.
In 2010, I moved into the role of executive director. At that point, we had added a fourth initiative and were becoming really big.
We now have 51 staff people. The non-profit celebrated its 10-year anniversary in October, and that’s when we made a public announcement to launch Impact America and start scaling our work out of Alabama.
Do you have a favorite moment from your work in the community with Impact Alabama?
I love seeing the moment when a freshman college student goes from a nervous volunteer to someone who has a lot of confidence and poise. It’s so transformative for them. The students will come back to the classroom and say, “I can’t believe how hard poor people work.” Even with liberal-minded kids, there is the idea that if you’re only making $20,000 a year, you must be a little lazy. But, the people who come to our tax site are often working 2-3 jobs and working 50-60 hours a week at minimum wage—it’s just not enough to care for a family. The students are able to see that and understand more what it’s like to live in poverty.
Do you imagine yourself staying in Impact America for a long time?
Absolutely. My first day on the job I realized how much responsibility I was going to have, and that hasn’t changed. Now, figuring out how to scale a program nationally is another great opportunity to grow.
A lot of people give the advice, ‘follow your passion.’ But if you don’t know what you want to do, that mantra can be paralyzing. If you pick one thing and go with it, you can make that your passion. I think I was passionate about trying to do good work in Alabama, but I certainly wasn’t passionate about taxes.
How have you come to define success?
When I was in college, I defined success as getting good grades to prove that I belonged in this place. When I graduated, I still wanted to define success as doing something prestigious—I thought I was going to go to law school.
After a couple years at Impact Alabama, I redefined success more in terms of the day-to-day—every day or every week feeling like we’re doing substantive work to make the community better. Personally, knowing that I’m being challenged and growing makes me feel successful.
What advice would you give to Williams alums preparing for life after graduation?
I wish I could tell them to take a step back and relax. College graduates come in on day one and want to do everything and know everything. This is a process—you’re not going to know everything, and it’s not going to be an epiphany moment every day on your job. You’ve got to carve out a good work-life balance and be able to look at the big picture of what you’re doing. When you get in your first career, make sure that you’re working as hard as you can on making an impact on your employer and don’t always ask what you’re getting out of the experience.
Also, have fun and expand your community and your definition of community. Meet people who don’t look like you and don’t think like you because that makes the whole community better.
You can learn more about Impact America at impactamerica.com