The China Connection

By Jamie Creamer

Academic exchange, research pacts link Auburn Ag, China

In the predawn hours of May 10, 2016, David Weaver and nine Auburn College of Agriculture students flew out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for an almost-8,000-mile trip to the other side of the world. Forty days later, he and those same students landed back in Atlanta.

Only, they weren’t the same students. Not really, because spending close to six weeks of one’s life immersed in the culture of a foreign country is transformational.

“The experience changes their whole perspective,” Weaver says of the students. “It changes the way they look at the world.”

David Weaver in a Chinese market Auburn’s David Weaver buys produce from a favorite Yangling market vendor.

The experience is Maymester Abroad, a study tour to China that the College of Agriculture initiated in 2009 and that Weaver, veteran plant breeder and now–professor emeritus in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, has led six times over the past eight years.

During Maymester, Weaver teaches his signature semester-long Plant Genetics and Crop Improvement course to Auburn students, for Auburn credit, but he does so in five and a half intensive weeks and, most significantly, in a classroom at Northwest A&F University in Yangling, China.

Looking back on his 35-year teaching, advising and research career at Auburn, Weaver calls Maymester “one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

“This trip takes students out of their comfort zones and opens their eyes to so much,” Weaver says. “To me, that’s what college is all about—taking smart students and giving them the experiences they’ll need to negotiate their lives.”

Although Weaver already had five successful Maymester tours under his belt, that didn’t make putting the 2016 edition together a whole lot easier. Any way you slice it, pulling off a near-flawless expedition for 10 to a faraway land for an extended stay is challenging. But that’s not the toughest part, Weaver says.

“Making the trip happen always depends on so much—on getting grants and rounding up enough funding to make it happen—and every year, the cost of everything goes up,” says Weaver, who officially retired from Auburn Aug. 1 but is remaining on the faculty for another year. “Honestly, I’ve looked at every one of these tours like it’s the last one I’ll lead. You never know.”


But from one Maymester to the next, one component of the tour has remained constant: the destination. Northwest A&F University is always ready to welcome the Auburn gang to campus and graciously host the visitors for the duration.

For Auburn and the College of Agriculture, Northwest A&F is a strong global partner—as are the 18 other agricultural and aquacultural universities in the People’s Republic of China with which Auburn agriculture has academic exchange and research partnerships. From that standpoint, it’s safe to say that the world’s most densely populated country is the College of Agriculture’s most established international academic and research partner, hands down.

“Historically, the College of Agriculture has played a lead role at Auburn in developing partnerships with China, and, as a result, we have a very strong program today,” says Henry Fadamiro, assistant dean and director of the college’s Office of Global Programs.

Auburn Maymester 2016 participants pose with one of China’s 2,000 statues honoring Chairman Mao Zedong. While visiting Beijing’s China Agricultural University, David Weaver, second from left, and Auburn Maymester 2016 participants pose with one of China’s 2,000 statues honoring Chairman Mao Zedong.

A couple of other factors have played a role in strengthening and expanding those cooperative relationships, too, he says. For one, more than a dozen current faculty members in the college are natives of China.

For another, the college has a number of influential alumni who now live and work in China, including some who are with Auburn’s partnering universities. Take, for instance, Zhaohu Li, a ’99 Auburn agronomy and soils Ph.D. alumnus who now is vice president for research at China Agricultural University in Beijing and an advocate for studying abroad. (See related story, p. 39.)

“Globalization is no longer just a word; it is a vital part of student training,” Li says “Our students today are the leaders of tomorrow, and they need to be trained internationally.”

And, in fact, just as Weaver and the Maymester team arrived in Yangling, nine Auburn Ag Ambassadors and eight other College of Ag students were 700 miles to the northeast in Beijing, heading out for day one of an eight-day cultural and agricultural study tour hosted by Li and CAU.

Such partnerships are highly advantageous for Auburn agriculture, Fadamiro says.

“For the college, the relationships and partnerships we have with these many universities in China improve our global status and reputation,” he says. “But, most important, they open new opportunities for our researchers to work directly with their colleagues in China, and they strengthen the academic and cultural exchange experiences we can offer our students and theirs.”


A prime example of the latter is 3+2.

3+2 is an accelerated master’s degree program that the College of Agriculture has established with five of its 19 China partners, including Northwest A&F and China Agricultural universities as well as Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan and Qingdao Agricultural University and Ocean University of China, both in Qingdao.

In the program, up to five highly select students from each partnering Chinese university who have completed three years of coursework at their home universities come to Auburn for two additional years of study in the College of Agriculture. At the end of their first academic year at Auburn, the students receive their undergraduate degrees from their home universities. At the end of year two, they graduate with their master’s from Auburn University.

“Many Chinese students consider having a degree from an American university as an advantage and a dream,” Fadamiro says. “3+2 gives these students the chance to study abroad and also complete a master’s degree in one year instead of two.”

3+2 kicked off fall semester 2014 with five China Agricultural University students.

Among the five trailblazers were entomology major Xiaodi Wang and agronomy and soils student Cheng Qian, both of whom will graduate with their M.S. degrees in December.

Deciding to participate in this brand-new, as-yet-unproven 3+2 program wasn’t easy.

“I was excited but a little hesitant about participating in this program,” Wang says. “I looked forward to living and studying in the U.S. because I believed this experience would open my mind, bring cultural shock and lessen the time of getting an M.S. degree, but I was afraid to be away from my country and to use a second language for living and studying.”


Two girls posing for picture Yuexun Tian, left, and Xiaodi Wang, are among the dozen 3+2 students currently at Auburn.

Recalling their early weeks as Auburn students, the two say that, while communicating in English was difficult, it wasn’t the greatest adjustment they faced.

“The biggest education adjustment that I have made was adapting to the higher frequencies of quizzes and exams here,” Wang says. “In China, we only have one or two exams in every course.”

True, Qian says.

“We also don’t have homework in China,” she says. “It was a big challenge to get good grades on homework and quizzes at first.”

This semester, a dozen total 3+2 students from CAU and other partnering universities are enrolled at Auburn. Wang and Qian will be the third and fourth CAU/Auburn students to complete 3+2;

Jing Li received a master’s in agronomy in May, and Caixing Xiong was awarded her master’s in entomology in August.

The overall goal of the 3+2 program is to prepare the students for successful careers in the global economy by developing their scientific, language and practical skills as well as their leadership abilities and cultural awareness, and Wang and Qian say their Auburn experiences have met and surpassed the goal. They also intend to sell other Chinese students on joining the innovative program.

“Having sufficient economic support is certainly important,” Wang says. “But I will encourage my fellow students at CAU to participate in this program if they want to get an M.S. degree in just one year after graduating and especially if they are curious to experience the different culture.”


The most recent Auburn-China partnership agreement was established last summer, when Auburn’s College of Agriculture and Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station and Ocean University of China teamed up to create the OUC-AU Joint Center for Aquaculture and Environmental Sciences.

In essence, the center will be a funding source for aquaculture, fisheries and environmental sciences research partnerships between the two universities.

Fadamiro says the agreement represents a major effort aimed at stimulating collaborative research between Auburn and Ocean University faculty.

“Ocean University has agreed to invest $500,000 a year for three years to provide seed grants for research projects proposed jointly by scientists from both universities,” he says. “Every year, the center will set a research theme and funding for projects related to specific priority areas.”

The center expects to issue the first request for research proposals later this fall. The priority areas will include aquaculture and fisheries science, water quality, climate change, aquatic animal genomics and environmental science.

Today’s Auburn-China partnerships 30 years in the works

The strong academic and research partnerships that Auburn University’s College of Agriculture has today with 19 agricultural universities across China didn’t happen overnight. They were three decades in the making.

Richard Guthrie, dean and director emeritus of the College of Agriculture and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, can attest to that, seeing as how he’s the man who, back in 1986, put the show on the road.

At the time, Guthrie—an Auburn agronomy and soils alumnus, professor and department head—was acting dean of the College of Agriculture and, as such, was invited to join a delegation of  university administrators that traveled to China in an effort to lay the groundwork for eventual Auburn-China connections.

For Guthrie and Auburn agriculture, that journey was highly productive, particularly during the group’s stops in Beijing and Wuhan, where he met with key officials at China Agricultural University at Wuhan’s Hubei Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

“Both universities were anxious to develop exchange and research partnerships with us, especially those that offered their scientists opportunities to come to Auburn,” says Guthrie, now dean and director emeritus of the College of Agriculture and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station. “And we had faculty here who wanted to visit these universities to learn about Chinese agriculture and the research they were doing.”

The connections Guthrie made with Hubei faculty, he says, were “the most enduring and perhaps most productive” over the course of his trip, and within a year of his China tour, Auburn’s College of Agriculture welcomed its first visiting scientists from the Hubei university and, in return, sent a trio of its faculty members to Hubei.

Among the three was Auburn horticulture professor Joe Norton, and the initial contacts he made with Hubei horticulturists would prove to be extremely fruitful.

“Dr. Norton first brought Hubei satsumas back to Auburn as a possible new crop for Alabama and also brought kiwifruit and Chinese chestnut cultivars,” Guthrie says.

Years of research followed, and today, some south Alabama counties, especially Mobile and Baldwin, boast a small but thriving satsuma industry in which demand far exceeds supply. In addition, two golden kiwifruit varieties jointly patented by Auburn and Hubei Academy are on the market, as are six Auburn-developed and -patented Chinese chestnut varieties that researchers bred specifically to attract wildlife.

In 2001, Guthrie, who for 15 of his 25 years at Auburn served as the college’s associate dean for international agriculture, also laid the foundation for a relationship between the College of Agriculture and a third Chinese university: Northwest A&F University in Yangling. That partnership has led to several faculty and student exchanges in the years since, including the six-week Maymester Study Abroad program that David Weaver, crop, soil and environmental sciences professor emeritus, has offered for six of the past eight years.

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