We're not in Kunshan anymore

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle, usually published every other Friday.

“We are pleased to announce that Duke leadership has determined that they are able to welcome to the Duke campus for the fall 2020 semester those DKU students in the classes of 2022, 2023, and 2024.”

Receiving the July 7 email from Duke Kunshan’s Office of Undergraduate Studies brought a huge sigh of relief. For me and many of my DKU peers, the past six months had been tumultuous, to say the least. From spending most of January in China, the initial epicenter of COVID-19, to administration emails that would inevitably send us packing, to starting Zoom classes a month before the rest of the world, to our effective banishment from returning to campus, much of the year had been a lesson in what it’s like to live in limbo.

Flash forward to the present. I’m sitting on my single bed in historic Craven Quad as I finish an executive summary for a Bass Connections project on urban migration in Hong Kong, scarfing down my Sazón bowl in between PUBPOL 155 and AMES 231. Scattered around the quad are 15 fellow sophomore Duke Kunshan transplants, plus a single junior, and 12 first-years mixed in with their peers on East. (Another junior is spending her fall at the Marine Lab.) We’re the first undergraduates from Duke Kunshan to study “abroad” on Duke’s main campus, a momentous occasion for our program, COVID-19 notwithstanding.

It’s a surreal feeling to have started my sophomore year on a Hogwarts-style campus 7,000 miles from where I began my Duke experience—a literal world away. Walking across West Campus, I have the wide-eyed curiosity of a first-year, the anxiety of a transfer student and the unfamiliarity of an international student a long way from home (Connecticut, via China). Even the grassy quads— complete with the quintessential game of frisbee—form a stark departure from DKU’s central campus lake and futuristic architecture. I’m still tempted to order food from the Brodhead Center in Mandarin and check WeChat groups for messages from Student Affairs. I’m constantly overwhelmed by the sheer number of academic and extracurricular opportunities thrown at us here, and I feel like every day I’m writing new applications for boards, project teams and internships.

I’m still learning across time zones, taking Duke Kunshan’s sophomore core course, Global Challenges, in my evenings and early mornings; organizing headshot photo sessions on our campus in China; and working as a student ambassador to recruit DKU’s Class of 2025. I keep in touch with my international classmates daily, trying to disseminate the plethora of digital resources at our disposal to better integrate them into the Duke community. And I’ve been able to work towards fostering cross-campus collaboration through organizations like duARTS, Duke University Union and Muser, all of whom have been enthusiastic about expanding access to students from Duke’s sister campus in Kunshan.

As the semester nears its midpoint, the familiarity of a university routine has been a welcome experience, especially after such a long stint at home. My weekend trips by bullet train to Shanghai to eat pierogis and tapas have been supplanted with walks to eat breakfast crepes and poke bowls with new friends at the Brodhead Center. I’ve traded in Yang’s dumplings and jianbing for the burgers at Local 22 and the pizzas from Pompieri. Visits with Nugget have become a weekly highlight. And everyone I’ve met, from professors teaching remotely to my neighbors in Craven, has welcomed me as one of their own—a relief, considering the initial culture shock. One month into classes, and I haven’t had to flee across international borders or navigate the intricacies of the pandemic-era visa process. Duke has brought us fully into the fold, and I’m ever grateful.

I look forward to the day when I can return to Kunshan, hopefully for the spring semester, if U.S.-China political tensions calm and international travel conditions permit. Much has to occur to make this a reality—borders reopening, flights being scheduled and 14-day quarantines completed. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that impermanence is a constant and that our situations can change almost instantly. So for now, I’m thrilled with my temporary surroundings on one of the world’s most beautiful campuses, and I’m intent on making the most of this accidental semester in Durham. 

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


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