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Although unfinished, DKU offers positive first semester

KUNSHAN, China—Students studying at Duke Kunshan University in its inaugural semester have largely reported a positive classroom and residential experience, though the incomplete nature of the campus has limited students in some ways.

At the start of the semester, students lived in a Swiss-managed hotel five minutes from the Kunshan South Railway Station that shuttles Kunshan residents back and forth from Shanghai in 20 minutes. It was not until Oct. 24 that students moved into the conference center, where they also attend classes. The academic center and student dormitories will be complete in two to three weeks. Faculty also currently live in the conference center, as the faculty residence hall is unfinished. Their hall is also slated to be finished in the same time frame.

The third floor of the conference center has been reserved for male students and the fourth for female. The rooms in the conference center will later be for guests who come to visit DKU and need a place to stay.

Liu Yi, a student from Wuhan University who is part of the undergraduate global semester, said she has a private room in the conference center with a king sized bed. She also had a television in her room before it broke and was taken away.

Jordan Elkins, a Duke junior studying abroad at DKU, said it is possible to sometimes go days without leaving the conference center because students eat, take classes and sleep all in the same building.

“It’s going to be an experience I look back in five to 10 years and I’ll cherish it more then than I do now, but it’s not a fully developed thriving school yet,” he said. “A lot of the Chinese students will tell you here that it’s the greatest experience, but I’m spoiled from going to Duke.”

Kennedy Opondo, a student from Kenya pursuing a master’s degree in global health, also commended DKU’s state-of-the-art facilities.

“It’s a new establishment…there have been challenges so we handled that well,” he said. “The program itself is quite good…I find the experience at DKU, for now, it is okay.”

Students attending Duke Kunshan University, pictured above, have reported positive classroom and residential experiences but say that more could be done to improve the student experience.

It is unclear whether the student dormitories will offer similarly nice amenities when complete, as the building is unavailable for touring. The rooms will be suite style, with four students to one suites, said Bonnie Liu, associate director of career management service for the master of management studies at DKU.

Elkins noted that there is not much to do on campus and that Kunshan is not very interesting, though he likes living in one of the fastest growing cities in China.

Cao Weixing, vice governor of the Jiangsu provincial government, said Jiangsu—the province that includes Kunshan—is one of the most developed provinces in China, with one of the highest measures of gross domestic product per capita. Kunshan itself is heralded for its rapid economic development. It is the first county-level city with a gross domestic product of more than 200 billion yuan.

Students do take trips into Kunshan, which can be done through a Duke-sponsored shuttle that runs frequently, though Shanghai seems to be the more popular destination. Opondo said many students go every week, with some going to Shanghai twice a week.

Elkins said he has not spent a weekend on campus because there is not much to do.

“I think it depends on who you are how you feel about Kunshan,” he said. “For me, it's not the most interesting city.”

The DKU website notes that the high-speed train reaches Shanghai, as well as the nearby Suzhou, in just 20 minutes. The campus’ location, however, requires a 30 minute drive to reach the station. Students can take a bus from a stop on campus that runs every hour. Elkins added that after combining all of these factors, a trip into Shanghai is a far more time consuming experience than it is presented to be.

Pranav Sridhar, a global semester undergraduate student, said he has enjoyed his excursions into Kunshan.

“It’s an awesome experience to see Kunshan,” he said. “We all connect with the city and have visited a lot of places.”

Students also noted that visiting Kunshan has helped their Chinese because one must must have a basic grasp of the language to navigate Kunshan, unlike in Shanghai.

“I was a bit apprehensive to what it was going to be like but by the end, it was okay,” said Sambhavna Bisivas Shinav, a global semester undergraduate student, about navigating the city.

Earlier this year, Elkins wrote a Chronicle guest column criticizing certain aspects of DKU, including a lack of healthcare facilities on campus. Sridhar also noted that this was a problem on campus at first.

“When we came, there were issues with a medical facility. It was not perfect just yet,” he said.

Since that time, DKU administrators have taken steps to address the concerns raised by Elkins. As Mary Brown Bullock, executive vice chancellor of DKU, noted in her reply to the column, a shuttle service is now available to take students to health professionals if needed.

Several students heralded their learning experience at DKU, noting that the classes and faculty experience has been positive.

Cathy Fu, a global semester undergraduate student, said that because the Duke courses are condensed to a shorter time frame than a regular semester, it created a high volume of reading that was challenging at first as a non-native English speaker. Fu added that with time, the courses have gotten easier and she feels if she were to take an exam from earlier in the year she could do much better with the English speaking skills she acquired.

Studying at DKU, there is less of a focus on grades and more on absorbing the actual material, Elkins said. He also added his Chinese has improved since he came to DKU.

The students have begun on-campus activities, most notably the varsity club, where students do a variety of physical activity from hiking to playing soccer. There is also a photography club and a reading club run by Don Snow, director of language and writing programs at DKU, which consists of primarily Chinese students, said Florence Tesha, a global semester undergraduate student.

Jia Zheng, administrative assistant for student life at DKU, said student life often sponsors KTV karaoke nights on campus. KTV is very popular in China, and students will often go out into town and book a room to do KTV.

Students have also participated in local traditions on campus. For the Mid-Autumn Festival, which celebrates the full moon in early September, students made paper boats and put candles in them to float in the water, Zheng said, adding that the idea came from a Vietnamese Duke student who shared this aspect of his culture.

On Halloween, which is not celebrated in China, students carved pumpkins and some even dressed up as pandas, Zheng added.

“I think DKU is going to be the best thing to ever happen to education in China in 10 years,” Elkins said. “Right now, it’s just not done.”


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