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By Julie Berry
  • Dairy Fellows Program
  • Animal Science
  • Agriculture
  • Dairy
Every other year, the Department of Animal Science offers two immersive, international experiences for students during winter break. The study trips take underclassmen to Italy and upperclassmen to China, where they gain exposure to global dairy food production and build their knowledge of diverse agriculture systems and cultures.

These international experiences have a powerful and lasting impact on students, shaping how they think about national and international food systems. Going into the first trip in 1996, 15 of the 42 students had never left New York state, and many had never been on a plane.

“What they knew was home and New York. But what I learned is if you set the trip up correctly, they start to ask: Why do they do what they do? Is it culture, policy or resources?” said Mike Van Amburgh, professor of animal science, who developed the faculty-directed study abroad program and continues to lead the trips. “When I see alumni from 20 years ago, they still remember their experience. The trips helped them think differently about their food system.”

In the 1990s, students in the Cornell University Dairy Science Club wanted an opportunity to see what agriculture looked like outside of the U.S. After Van Amburgh began advising the group, he helped arrange a tour of the Royal Dairy at Windsor Castle in England in 1995. During the visit, students saw how the dairy managed its herd of Jersey cattle and gave the royal farm manager advice on growing alfalfa.

“Our program recognizes how complex and global food production, agriculture and dairy are,” Van Amburgh said. “Students need to leave the program with some understanding and experience to navigate such a complicated system.” 

By 2006, the number of students interested in the international trips more than doubled, and Van Amburgh worked to design two separate opportunities for underclassmen and upperclassmen.

“For underclassmen without much international experience, Italy is an easy place to engage. Food is part of the culture, and they are very open about their system and production,” he said. “High quality, hand-made artisanal cheeses and other foods are produced on a larger scale and sold at a reasonable price, so it provides a different perspective.” 

For upperclassmen, the last three trips were designed in a partnership with members of China Agricultural University in Beijing, where students from both universities partner on solutions to challenges faced in the dairy industry. 

“Trips like this offer a safe and comfortable way to dip your toes in that world to see things the average person cannot,” said Case Schaap ’20, who participated in both the Italy and China trips. “Italy offers a unique perspective and a different approach to dairy that I can take home to look at our own industry—Italy uses every square inch of land; they farm every hillside, river and valley. Literally, food was the connection. In contrast, the Chinese perspective is factory-oriented: clean, high quality, efficient.”

In 2008, after the melamine-tainted milk scare, the Chinese government developed a large-scale, technology-driven dairy system to overcome consumer distrust. Now, Chinese dairy students are highly educated about dairy biology, but many lack first-hand exposure to farms. When they collaborate with Cornell students, each brings unique knowledge about how the industry operates.

“In China, our students learn to put observations in a global context. We take a step back and throw out assumptions from North America, where we are used to capitalism and a democratic system,” said Blake Nguyen DVM ’12, lecturer in Dairy Management and director of the Cornell Teaching Dairy, who led this year’s China trip. “China operates under constraints of resources with population pressure. Hunger has given rise to different perspectives on food production and using resources differently." 

To date, 1,056 students have participated in this international programming. The experience often inspires students to continue their cross-cultural learning by studying abroad. By graduation, 90% of Dairy Fellows and other students focusing on dairy management have participated in an international experience.

“On all of the trips I felt like you’re drinking out of a firehose. Then on the flight home, with the opportunity to digest, I feel energy to create something new out of this experience,” said Thomas Mueller ’20, who participated in the Italy trip and then spent a semester in Shanghai as a global sustainability student. “When I was in China, I felt like there was opportunity everywhere. Now I ask, how do I take this and apply it. I knew I could come back to Cornell with the resources here to start asking good questions.”

Nguyen said, “By incorporating these trips with the rest of our courses, we are working hard to provide a science-based education to the future players in a food system that operates responsibly within the political, economic, social and environmental constraints that the modern world presents.”


Julie Berry ’97 is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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