Interdisciplinary work is the new frontier, and Cornell is leading the way

Students in Jamaica, Queens to deliver tax services
Members of the Low-Income Taxpayer Law and Accounting Practicum collaborate with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens to deliver tax services

By Angus J. McKenzie, MPS in Management – Accounting Specialization ’19

The future of education undoubtedly includes initiatives that cross school boundaries—programs that unite students and faculty with unique skill sets and talents toward a common goal. Although this trend is relatively new, Cornell University is constantly working to make interdisciplinary study a core part of its curriculum.

A case in point is the Low-Income Taxpayer Law and Accounting Practicum (known as LITLAP), which I participated in this spring and includes students from the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and the Cornell Law School. You might think members of this group, who range in both age and experience, would struggle to find cohesiveness; On the contrary, we quickly found common ground while embracing the mission of this new interdisciplinary curriculum.

Now in its second year, LITLAP helps provide tax law and accounting services to low-income taxpayers from diverse communities. It does so by teaching students about the field, who then offer expertise on tax return preparation and immigration casework to those who might not otherwise afford it.

Classes pave the way for providing good advice

Students interested in the practicum start by taking prerequisites, such as federal income tax classes (either in the Dyson School or the Law School), as well as a unique fall-semester elective called Federal Income Taxation of Low-Income Taxpayers, taught by John McKinley, professor of practice. This class brings together students from around the university to discuss social, political, and economic issues related to the tax code that impact low-income workers. It also lays the foundation for the spring practicum, including VITA certification, which is necessary to complete tax returns on a voluntary basis.

In the spring, these students meet again in the Law School and officially begin LITLAP. Practicing tax lawyers and accountants serve as adjunct professors and supervisors, and class participants become volunteers, serving real clients in a variety of settings.

Students travel to New York City and Alaska

The casework is diverse. Students have worked with the Alternatives Federal Credit Union Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, Lifelong (a non-profit organization in Ithaca that enhances the lives of the elderly), immigrant farm workers in upstate New York, taxpayers in Jamaica, Queens, exonerees, and Indigenous communities in rural Alaska. The group also takes on complex cases, providing tax law advice for clients grappling with off-books pay, undocumented status, dependents living in other countries, starting a new business, or uncertain obligations under the shifting tax code. One more role of LITLAP entails providing research for non-profit organizations on emerging tax law issues.

Apart from the impactful services LITLAP provides, what makes the initiative unique are the faculty and students involved. We come together from different corners of the campus to learn and to assist others, which I’ve found to be incredibly rewarding.

LITLAP members in rural Alaska

With interdisciplinary work on the rise, it is exciting to see Cornell leading the charge. Through LITLAP, Cornell is going beyond simply creating theoretically grounded experiential coursework: we’re evolving into an actively engaged member of the greater community.

About Angus J. McKenzie, MPS ’19

Angus McKenzie

Angus J. McKenzie is a candidate for a Masters of Professional Studies in Management with an Accounting Specialization at Johnson. An international student from New Zealand, he completed his bachelor’s degree in accounting at the University of Kentucky in three years. At Cornell, Angus has immersed himself in true Johnson spirit through volunteering, program outreach, and active class participation. He will be starting his professional career with EY in its Atlanta office, working in the Global Mobility pillar of its People Advisory Service division.