As Duke President Richard Brodhead navigates his final semester, The Chronicle has been examining changes that have occurred in athletics during his tenure with a series of articles, concluding with one about how sports are becoming part of the culture at Duke Kunshan University. Read about Brodhead’s bond with men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski here, his role in hiring football head coach David Cutcliffe here, his decision to hire Kevin White, vice president and director of athletics, here and how sports affects the University’s image here.
When Tarela Osuobeni was one of the first Duke undergraduates to attend Duke Kunshan University in Fall 2014, it was like working at a startup company.
Although the academic framework was set with university professors teaching courses and there were some programs for students, construction delays to Duke’s satellite campus meant that students were housed in a hotel for their first few months and given a blank canvas to craft the new university’s student culture.
“I felt like there hadn’t been deep planning and an understanding that student life was going to be important at DKU,” Osuobeni said. “It just felt like there wasn’t much of a framework for what student life would look like. It felt like we had to make that up from scratch.”
With few opportunities for students to engage with one another outside of classes, Osuobeni worked with fellow students to launch DKU Varsity, a recreational student group that offered basketball, soccer, running and weightlifting on different days to facilitate more relaxed interactions.
Even after Osuobeni left following her semester at DKU, the club sports opportunities flourished. Less than two years later after DKU Varsity began, the school’s Jiangnan River rivalry with New York University Shanghai began with competitions in women’s volleyball and men’s basketball.
Although DKU’s sports culture has a long way to go to catch up with the atmosphere on Duke’s Durham campus—an announcement for DKU’s April 2015 matchups with NYU Shanghai estimated that 80 fans in blue would cheer on DKU—the Kunshan University’s athletic exploits have already brought it closer to Duke in just a few short years.
“[I was] bringing a deeper understanding of American student culture at a university that’s sports and passionate—that’s a part of what Duke is,” Osuobeni said. “If it’s Duke Kunshan University, there needs to be an element of Duke as well to create what the culture is going to be. I thought sports would be a perfect way to do that.”
Denis Simon, DKU’s executive vice chancellor, wrote in an email that the first rendition of the Jiangnan River rivalry led to a similar basketball friendship game against Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou.
Osuobeni and other students helped organize a hiking trip and 5,000-meter run that still occurs each semester, with cycling, badminton and table tennis among the other activities currently available to students, Simon wrote. In addition to competing with other schools in basketball, DKU also currently plays opponents in badminton and table tennis.
“The first game with NYU Shanghai generated a lot of excitement not only in the game itself, but also a great deal of enthusiasm in Duke basketball (e.g. watching the Blue Devils in action and March Madness on televised broadcasts),” Simon wrote. “In China, collegiate ‘competitions’ are considered as ‘friendship games’ and the concepts of ‘varsity’ vs. ‘[intramural]’ are not as clearly distinguishable nor applicable as in the U.S., sports are part of campus life.”
Although Osuobeni said she was concerned other students might not be able to keep DKU Varsity as an integral part of campus life because of a lack of continuity, it has continued to grow and unite a student body with a mix of Chinese and international students.
Simon wrote that as part of DKU’s future strategy, Student Affairs is planning recruitment for a full-time athletics director. Sports facilities will be a key component of future construction planning.
“The Chinese are an aspiring nation, and they know they start from a very backward position. They are coming to understand that sports and education can be developed in ways that reinforce each other. That was not a tradition there. That is a lesson you can learn from Duke,” Brodhead said. “The model of education we’re bringing there is a model of total engagement with every part of your faculties, not simply the use of your academic muscles.”
Deborah Huang, a student who grew up in China and attended DKU in spring 2015, wrote in an email that even though the young university is faced with a lack of prestige, helping to build its athletic culture enriched her experience.
Huang was one of the leaders of DKU Varsity during her time there.
“Our sports culture there was to establish a harmonic community by pursuing a responsible, healthy life,“ Huang wrote. “We developed connections that bonded together students from different countries and different nations through all kinds of sports activities. We provided them chances to make friends faster.”
The concept of using sports to build relationships is nothing new for the Chinese, who have been using friendship games to facilitate more positive interactions with the U.S. for decades. Duke’s women’s soccer team visited China last summer as part of the annual Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, and the Blue Devil men’s basketball team took a similar trip in 2011.
Although Osuobeni said it seemed like there was not much of a framework for student life when she first arrived at DKU, Simon noted that recreational sports and fitness programs have been a priority from the start, a trend that he wrote will continue.
And as Brodhead prepares to leave the president’s office, changes in the controversial partnership between Duke and the Chinese are just part of the transformations he has overseen.
“Sports are an essential part of the Chinese education experience throughout the school and/or college years,” Simon wrote. “Duke Kunshan University Student Affairs intends to develop a sports program that is sustainable, owned by the students, and an endeavor that current students and the Duke Kunshan alumni will be proud of.”
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