Students at Duke Kunshan University, now a fully operational online institution, long for the vibrant social interaction of campus that can’t translate to a virtual classroom.
Just after the Spring Festival Break in January, DKU announced that classes would be canceled until Feb. 17 due to the rapid spread of coronavirus. The administration encouraged international students and Chinese students who weren’t from Hubei province to return home, even providing travel stipends. Those who chose to stay at DKU could live on campus but would not be allowed to leave.
The DKU emergency preparedness task force emailed members of the DKU community Jan. 30 and wrote that it was continuing its campus access restrictions until Feb. 24 and noted plans for all undergraduate and graduate courses to go online. DKU curriculum shifted to being entirely online Feb. 24.
The Chronicle has received mostly positive feedback from students and faculty about class quality, but online courses come at the cost of isolation and reduced social interaction for students.
Those who stayed behind
Although many students chose to go home after DKU locked down its campus, some chose to stay.
“I feel like we’re quite isolated because there are just a few of us on campus and we are not allowed to get out of here,” said first-year Leiyuan Tian, who knew of one student who snuck off campus at night but was caught. “We're just kind of trapped here.”
Since transportation hasn’t resumed yet, Tian said students and their families can’t visit each other, and it’s taking a toll on some of her classmates.
“I see students crying every day and calling their family,” Tian said. “Personally, I am okay,” she said, explaining that she’s been away from her family since high school. “But, seeing other students not doing well with this is really sad.”
Although being trapped on campus isn’t ideal, the students have access to the gym and a strong WiFi connection.
“We take PE six days a week,” Tian said
It’s the only class still taught on campus.
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Tian and her roommate, Joy Xiao, said they pass the time by cooking in the student kitchen and playing video games on the computer.
“Before this coronavirus outbreak, we had no experience in cooking,” Xiao said. “So basically, we taught ourselves.”
Their repertoire includes dumplings and Cantonese food from Tian’s home province, among other things.
“We’re really not worried about the coronavirus,” Xiao said.
Tian agreed that most people on campus were pretty relaxed since the campus is quarantined, and no one is allowed in or out without inspection.
According to Tian, DKU also told students to keep one meter from each other at all times and discourages people from sitting next to each other in the dining hall. Xiao said that they spent a lot of time on the computer playing games because the school had also prohibited social gatherings in the residence halls.
“Lots of people here just find one best friend and stick to each other all the time,” Tian said, since gathering lots of people together would be too obvious.
Those who chose to leave
After the initial happiness of reuniting with his family, first-year Charlie Colasurdo said he was quite anxious sitting at home.
“At DKU, we're all constantly in our meetings, we're in clubs, we're going out,” he said.
At home in Westport, Conn., there wasn’t much to do all day. His college-age friends had their own lives at school, and he was often alone during the day since his family worked. His three classes don’t fill all his free time, especially since most of the courses don’t meet every day.
First-year Mia Meier agreed that life at home in St. Louis paled in comparison to DKU.
“It’s pretty lonely being at home,” she said. “I’m really just here by myself.”
It was hard to come back home to what felt like high school after living abroad independently, she said. The only real excitement she’s had since returning home was visiting friends in New York and getting her wisdom teeth removed.
Last Sunday, both of them packed their bags and moved for the short-term to Montreal. Aside from a Colasurdo’s friend who attends McGill University, the two don’t know anybody there.
“It feels like the Christmas vacation I never got,” Colasurdo said.
Initially, Meier’s parents weren’t on board with the idea of her flying to Montreal and living in an Airbnb for a month. After seeing how restless she was at home, they gave her the green light.
“They understood that being isolated at home was probably not the best thing for my happiness and wellbeing,” she said.
Meier has been “pleasantly surprised by how smoothly everything has gone.” She agreed that it’s different than being in a classroom but said students can develop a different skill set online than they could in class.
Instead of testing how quickly they can think on their feet in a discussion section, students are encouraged to explore how much they can contribute to a more structured online forum, she elaborated.
Colasurdo explained that students have a greater responsibility to keep up with the material and reach out to classmates or instructors when they have questions. He also said some professors are more accessible to students now that they use class WeChat groups to answer questions and distribute assignments.
“Listen, no one is super excited about this current situation,” he said, “But you have to look at the exciting aspects of it and recognize that there are some cool things that we still can do.”
In contrast, first-year Johanna Crane’s transcontinental move wasn’t a fully voluntary decision.
She returned to her family in Amsterdam after DKU was evacuated, but she can’t work in Europe without a work permit. That left one option—return to the United States, find a job and live with a family member.
Crane now lives in Hawaii with her uncle and clocks in 48 hours per week at three different jobs. In the evenings after work, she does her classwork for a few hours.
Like many students, Crane experiences loneliness and isolation, especially since most of her friends are in different time zones.
“It’s definitely real,” she said, “but a lot of people that go to DKU are very resilient and very independent. We're all learning how to deal with it.”