“Are you serious?”
“There are better options...”
After we decided to spend our junior fall semesters at Duke Kunshan University, the most common reaction we garnered was doubt. Parents worried for our safety in a country in which we had zero language ability. Professors worried for our relative academic freedom. Friends worried for our sanity in such an isolated environment. These concerns, along with the many rumors and warnings surrounding Duke’s mysterious new campus in China, made us realize that this choice was certainly a leap of faith. We boarded flights to Shanghai with hesitance, knowing full well that we could possibly be spending the next four months in the middle of nowhere.
Imagine our surprise, then, upon departing the 19-minute bullet train ride to Kunshan South Station and stepping into a bustling city of towering skyscrapers, eleven-story malls, and over two million people. Was this China’s equivalent of “remote,” or did we have the wrong impression all along? The situation became almost laughable when we stepped onto DKU’s campus. With its lily pad-lined lake and clear glass buildings, this university was a cross between a meditator’s paradise and a sci-fi movie. Better yet, there were no cranes!
While the campus exceeded expectations, doubts still remained in our minds about whether we would fit in here. We knew neither the Chinese students nor our fellow Duke students. We were concerned whether we would have friends at all.
But these worries soon disappeared after our first night on campus, when we sat in a circle of students from all over the world, playing the Chinese version of Mafia. By the time we went to bed, we had received Chinese names, and had given English names to many classmates. Within the first week, we were already traveling, singing karaoke, and celebrating birthdays with new friends. Since all of the undergraduates were here for a “semester abroad,” the desire to make the most of the experience was felt all around, leaving no time for jet lag.
The excitement for the semester ahead was brewing, but a few things became quite clear early on:
The undergraduate program at Duke Kunshan University is small. As such, it attracts professors who are passionate about interacting with students personally and teaching in innovative ways. Classes at Duke Kunshan are taught with a degree of flexibility, with the aim being a depth of learning that is difficult to attain in conventional settings. The size also fosters an unbreakable sense of community outside of class. The undergraduate dean is a scholar of Shanghai nightlife, and acquainted us with some of the best spots in town. Going to dinner with administrators, working out at the gym with university staff, having weekly jam sessions with professors, making spontaneous trips to explore cities with graduate students—these rare scenarios at Duke are commonplace at DKU.
This semester, Duke Kunshan University boasted a ratio of about 8 Chinese students for each international student. This made it difficult to simply recreate our familiar spaces and export them to a new location. The rigorous selection process for the Chinese students both in terms of quantitative and qualitative elements placed us alongside the most brilliant, interesting and compassionate people who challenged our thinking on a daily basis, and introduced us to some of the diamonds of Chinese culture not as tour guides, but as buddies. The authentic, behind-the-scenes exposure to China we received would have been impossible in a majority-American cohort. Engaging with our Chinese, Indian, Kenyan, Mongolian, and South Korean classmates 24/7 allowed us to learn intimately about their diverse experiences and perspectives. We too brought elements of our own cultures to the table. For instance, Shockwave A Capella emerged as the most prominent student group on campus despite the majority of members having never read sheet music or harmonizing before in their lives.
There are cultural and language barriers. While everyone spoke English in class, this reality sometimes broke down inside the residence hall. All it took was a quick, “shenme?” and our friends would chuckle and explain anything we may not have understood. Though most every road sign is translated into English, we had to learn on our feet when traveling off campus, as directions in English would draw blank stares from taxi drivers. Luckily, our classmates were there for us every step of the way, showing us how to use Baidu maps, download coupons on WeChat, and book train tickets in advance. Midway through the semester, we were taking trips on our own, cracking jokes with taxi drivers in Chinese, and salivating over foods we would have never imagined eating back home.
Kunshan is not Shanghai. It is, however, the wealthiest county level city in China, and rapidly expanding, attracting both large amounts of capital and people from all over the world. Although Shanghai definitely contains a larger international community, Kunshan is a more unadulterated China, with more KTV spots than nightclubs and more hotpot restaurants than McDonald’s. There was also an immense feeling of belonging; the residents of Kunshan knew and respected DKU students and often went out of their way to make us feel at home. And for the days we craved a change of pace, Shanghai was just the perfect distance away.
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Right now, Duke Kunshan certainly exists to provide the opportunity for Duke undergraduates to engage in a unique intercultural environment in which they can leave their comfort zone for a semester and find ways to exercise team-building and leadership skills. However, unlike Young Trustee candidate Max Schreiber falsely asserts, Duke did not spend $100 million on 13 students (or even on Duke Kunshan in general, as the majority of its cost was covered by the Kunshan government). Duke Kunshan is a long-term investment that serves the greater purpose of expanding the Duke brand into what will soon become the largest economy in the world. This effort serves all of us, as many of our paths are likely to intersect with China in the years to come. Our alma mater existing there in the form of Duke Kunshan University stands to provide a significant advantage—educationally for all who will pursue the opportunities Duke Kunshan will offer as a full-scale liberal arts university, and professionally for a vastly extended network which we will all share. Most importantly, the effort represents Duke’s pioneering spirit in collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and taking the nontraditional path, an attitude many of the university’s students have themselves.
Duke Kunshan University is run by a driven team of administrators who are dedicated to the success of the institution. They are accessible to the students, and responsive to concerns, because they realize the vital role that the first few cohorts of students serve in laying the groundwork for the future of the university. If you enjoy the feeling of making a substantial impact somewhere, try Duke Kunshan. It truly becomes your campus to mold, and is an unparalleled opportunity to learn valuable lessons from one of the richest cultures on this planet.
This week is Duke Kunshan week. Many of the people who make Duke Kunshan University what it is and are committed to its success are here on campus. Meet them. Ask them questions. We will never forget how much DKU has done for us. Find out what DKU can do for you.
Justin Bryant and Ibanca Anand are both Trinity juniors. They attended the Fall 2015 Global Learning Semester at Duke Kunshan University.