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'Roll with the punches’: DKU students spending semester in NC adapt to life at Duke, Marine Lab

Some Duke Kunshan University students have found themselves in a strange place this fall: here at Duke. 

In a July 7 email to DKU undergraduates, DKU Dean of Students Raphael Moffett and DKU Dean of Undergraduate Studies Marica France announced that Kunshan students “who are both able to get to Duke’s campus by the start of the fall semester” and “whose visa status will allow them to take credit-bearing courses in the US” could study at Duke this fall. 

In the end, Duke welcomed 30 DKU students to its Durham campus for the fall and one to the Marine Lab, according to an information document sent to DKU students.

Sophomore Charlie Colasurdo wrote in a Sept. 18 essay in The Chronicle that this came as a “huge sigh of relief.” For the students now living in Durham, the ability to live on any college campus at all was preferable to staying home.

First-year Erica Ham commented on the changes, saying “It’s kind of been weird because you have this expectation of, ‘Okay I’m going to China in the fall,’ and you end up at a totally different university in America.”

For junior Catherine Brenner, studying at the Duke Marine Lab, the decision to stay in North Carolina was not spontaneous.

Brenner had been planning to spend her junior fall semester at the Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C., since hearing about it in her first year. DKU students are encouraged to spend at least one summer term and one fall term at Duke during their undergraduate experience. The classes offered at the Marine Lab would be a crucial addition to her existing environmental science curriculum.

“It was pretty smooth as far as ending up here,” Brenner said. “I was very fortunate in that regard. This was Plan A for me. Now that I’m here I just love it.”

The only thing that’s changed is Brenner’s new plan to remain for the spring semester rather than returning to China.

“The opportunities that I’ve had here, the way research is supported out here and the friends I’ve met that are also staying next semester are really what’s keeping me,” she said.

Brenner said that she has also enjoyed spending more time outdoors, especially spotting dolphins during long runs on the beach. 

Similarly, Ham has continued her passion for music by joining the Duke Marching Band.

Ham had initially come to terms with the fact that it would most likely be a year before she could play clarinet with others.That changed when she learned about Duke’s invite for DKU students to continue their education in Durham.

“When I found out I would be able to go to Duke, I was like, ‘oh my gosh. Maybe I can play clarinet with some people,’” Ham said. 

Junior Samantha Tsang, who ultimately decided to take classes from home, has also been able to find the simple joys in her decision.

“I’ll say that the main thing that I really like about online learning is the flexibility and the ability to structure my day outside of classes however I want,” Tsang said. “Now I have more time to maybe get a workout in or cook more often. Cooking is one of my hobbies, so I really like that it’s giving me that opportunity. That’s been a plus.” 

For those who chose to come to North Carolina, transitioning has brought challenges.

DKU students living in Durham have schedules consisting of both DKU and Duke classes. Based on time zone differences, DKU is 12 hours ahead of Duke.

This has led to wonky schedules—including late night and early morning lectures—with some classes carrying over into the weekend.

Ham’s schedule consists of Chinese at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, chemistry at 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and a lab at 7 a.m. on Friday.

On top of juggling time differences, DKU classes run quarterly rather than Duke’s semester system. This has forced students with mixed schedules to adapt to new DKU class schedules while staying the course in others.

As a DKU first-year living in Durham, Ham has found her place in Duke’s Class of 2024 while also meeting her DKU peers both virtually and in-person. Despite the divide, Ham has been able to keep in touch with friends from both schools.

She first met her DKU peers last spring through Zoom. Not only because of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus, she said, but also because the students come from all across the globe.

On campus, Colasurdo said that most of the DKU first-years and sophomores are spread across Craven Quad and have continued to foster community among themselves while also meeting new people.

These efforts have helped to meld the first-year class into the DKU and Durham communities simultaneously.

“I’ve actually been doing pretty well in terms of feeling like I’m included. It’s also what you make of it in this situation—I could totally be stressed and worry about everything or I could just try to make the most of it,” Ham said.

Even in challenging times, these DKU students have kept a positive attitude in their transition to life in Durham.

“We’re all equally prepared, it’s just how willing we are to roll with the punches,” Brenner said.


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