The independent news organization of Duke University

DKU’s new normal: A snapshot of post-pandemic college life


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

The weather on China’s eastern coast was getting cooler, a telltale sign of the approaching Mid-Autumn Festival. Students donning navy blue ‘Duke Kunshan’ hoodies crowded together to enjoy mooncakes and admire the reflection of the full moon on our campus pond. 

This year, China’s National Day holiday immediately followed the festival, and the campus was lively as students came and went from around the country. 

The first few weeks of Session 1 have flown by, a whirlwind of post-orientation excitement fading into a typical university routine. But there is nothing inherently typical about the Duke Kunshan experience, let alone this year. Unlike our peers in Durham, our campus is at full capacity. More than 600 DKU undergraduates are here for the fall semester, the largest student population in our short history. Housed across a smattering of on-campus and university-rented dorms, DKU is also hosting 56 Chinese students unable to enter the United States from Duke, the University of Washington, Harvard University, Smith College, Yale University and Bentley University.

At DKU, and in China at large, COVID-19 is not regarded an ever-present existential threat as such. Signs on campus encouraging social distancing remain but have all but lost their authority. The risk of an on-campus coronavirus outbreak is essentially zero, thanks to a strict identity-verification and temperature-measuring process at each of the university gates. We have the ability to travel around China—with permission—and we don’t have to wear masks on campus. 

Besides an absence of mask-wearing students, noticeably missing from campus are the international students, save for a handful of Koreans given special permission to return. From Yangon to Nairobi, over a third of our undergraduates remain home-bound, tuning into classes via Zoom. Some of my American peers are at Duke’s main campus, while others at home take a hybrid set of Duke and DKU courses. Our faculty—many of whom spent the first half of the year in Durham—have steadily streamed back into China, many with families in toe. 

The use of English on campus is at record low levels. Of course, we use it in the academic setting, but after class we code-switch back to Mandarin. We complain about our grades, upcoming assignments and where and who to go out with next weekend. Our day-to-day life has become a peculiar set of interactions, insular and familiar during my in-person interactions with peers and intensely international once I turn on my camera for class. This juxtaposition has often led me to reflect on why I chose to spend my undergraduate years here. Was it for the academic resources? The pedigree of a Duke diploma? Or was it something beyond this—something that could offer me a completely different perspective on the world?

Those of us on campus continue to make the most of our fall. We attend guest speaker series and movie nights, joking that we are motivated to attend by the prospect of free food. We’ve taken to exploring Kunshan, embarking on outings to new malls and historic villages. We’ve held popular events at the Blue Oasis, our student center just across the street from the main campus. Study spaces around campus are packed by 8 a.m. with students eager to delve into new courses—everything from public policy to media and arts. 

Since all of our clubs, organizations and events can be held in person, we sign up and attend as many as we can. I’m training for our badminton team twice a week and working on a proposal for DKU’s Innovation Incubator to start creating businesses on campus. My team has been working to develop a collaborative platform that can help students identify and take part in creative entrepreneurial ventures. For now, my days on campus feel busy and meaningful—a welcome sign of DKU’s new normal.

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


Share and discuss “DKU’s new normal: A snapshot of post-pandemic college life” on social media.