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Start-Up University: Going beyond a 'Duke education in China'

The Kunshan Report

<p>A birds-eye rendering of the future of DKU, which will greatly increase the size of Duke Kunshan University to include new classrooms, laboratories and more.&nbsp;</p>

A birds-eye rendering of the future of DKU, which will greatly increase the size of Duke Kunshan University to include new classrooms, laboratories and more. 

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China will be contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle to be published every other Friday. DKU, a joint venture university between Duke and Wuhan University in China, began its undergraduate program in 2018 and currently enrolls over 550 students from 40+ countries. DKU students receive Duke undergraduate degrees and become part of Duke’s alumni network. We are eager to get the word out about Duke Kunshan and the people, programs and unique perspectives of the community there through this upcoming series of biweekly articles, op-eds, and more. 

This is the first piece in The Kunshan Report.

Every college first-year can relate to the experience of having buzzwords, such as “interdisciplinary,” “international” and “innovative” thrown at them in their first few weeks on campus. 

Boiling down a four-year experience into a handful of tropes seems to be par for the course as far as college marketing. For the second class (2023) of undergraduates at Duke Kunshan University (DKU), the catchphrase that keeps popping up, again and again, is “Start-Up University.” Embedded within info sessions about campus procedures, welcome speeches from professors, deans and chancellors, the three-word slogan is emblematic of what our college experience will entail.

The mantra is certainly fitting for a university established in 2013. In just six years, the Duke Kunshan project has quite literally materialized out of what just a few years prior were rice paddies—a progressive and rigorous academic program just outside of Shanghai, attended by over 500 bright students hailing from over 40 countries. 

Given the challenges establishing a Sino-American joint venture project comes with, it's impressive and reassuring that the University has turned out so well. Enter the idea of a “Start-Up University.” It’s a go-to slogan in casual conversation—a succinct retort to situations that arise on campus, often in response to assimilating to life at university, and for many, life in a new country. Sometimes, it may even be how we describe being thrown into what feels like an experiment where we are both simultaneously test subjects and scientists.

The understandable cliché of describing us as “pioneers” at a “Start-Up University” isn’t lost on me. But in the three months since arriving on campus, I can attest to the fact that great things are percolating at Duke Kunshan—and they’re driven by the necessity to create something unique and uncharted for a blended, global-minded student body. 

Like many of my peers, I looked forward to helping to architect the direction of a university, which would not have been an option had I stuck with the typical college track on which most of my high school classmates embarked. Here, however, we are surrounded by opportunities to effect change rapidly, and make a mark on a university still in its infancy—so we jump in. 

When the student kitchen needed a set of guidelines for usage, I wrote the policy alongside a few Italian students eager to get cooking. Noting the lack of a “creative campus” ethos, I helped initiate a campus improvement committee that will be meeting to develop vibrant outdoor spaces for students. I’ve also become heavily involved with student affairs, helping launch our student center. Through this, I’m coming to find that not unlike a startup in the business world, an entire organizational infrastructure network is being built from the ground up, and students are the primary drivers.

On top of intensive, Duke-approved courses in Chinese debate, international political economy and environmental crisis management, DKU students take meetings with administrators to discuss its consent policy, work with Operations to plan the logistics of running a “Where Love Is Illegal” LGBT-themed art exhibition and help professors find ways to improve the Chinese learning experience. 

While our compadres at Duke in North Carolina were hitting up their first frat parties and basketball games, we were figuring out how to get a Chinese bank account, how to order in restaurants where all the items are listed in Mandarin and trying to set up our dorm rooms without a nearby Target or Bed Bath & Beyond. If I had a yuan for every discussion about how to improve the “food situation,” I’d be rich. But I digress...

There is an ambitious agenda for crafting a campus culture that strikes to blend Duke’s traditions into the local context of China, establish new traditions, and to create a unique university identity. Navigating such cross-continental barriers and working across languages and cultures to redefine an elite university experience calls upon us all to go above and beyond being just “regular college students.” We all have a role to play in our Start-Up University.

I would be remiss if I failed to give credit to the OGs of the Class of 2022, DKU’s original “pioneer” undergraduate class, and previous years of graduate and Global Learning Semester students, all of whom helped to lay the foundation upon which my class so firmly stands. Learning to adapt to living in a new culture, forging new friendships and being the first group of students to experience any initial systemic shocks was anything but easy, and yet they continue to pursue creating a better University with zeal. 

Much remains to be done for Duke Kunshan to reach its lofty aspirations—clubs and organizations to start, policies to enact, buildings to construct. But it’s clear to me that with the “start-up” mindset already enshrined within the University’s ethos, the collective impact of our actions on student life and campus culture is setting the stage for a modern, global sister university that the Duke community will be proud to call home.

Charlie Colasurdo is a first-year in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.

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