A Duke education, but not in China: Duke Kunshan University international students await return to campus

Photo courtesy of Perkins&Will.
Photo courtesy of Perkins&Will.

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle.

At Duke Kunshan University in China, a new normal has set in—students can go without masks in class, attend face-to-face office hours with professors and share meals with friends. Next door—in what was as recently as 2019 an empty field—towering cranes and hundreds of contractors work around the clock to finish the second phase of the campus, anticipated for completion next summer. The only thing missing is international students.  

For hundreds of them slated to attend classes in China, fall has been anything but a return to the status quo. Effectively stranded abroad since January 2020, all but a handful of international students from over 60 countries remain taking remote coursework from their high school bedrooms—or on an indefinite “study abroad” at Duke’s campus since fall 2020. This fall, there are over 200 DKU students studying abroad in Durham, with many planning to spend the spring semester here.

Now with a full cohort of four undergraduate classes, the starkly different outcomes for DKU’s international students have been exacerbated by border closures, visa logistics and the challenge of paying for college amidst the pandemic. The Chronicle caught up with DKU students at Duke and abroad to share their stories of struggle and resilience in the face of a seemingly impossible situation. 

‘There have been good times and bad times’: Experiencing DKU online

Junior Saad Lahrichi is entering his fourth consecutive semester online, after spending his fall 2019 semester on campus in China as a first-year. Taking classes from Casablanca, Morocco, Lahrichi noted that “there have been good times and bad times” concerning his remote learning experience. With a sizable portion of DKU’s international students studying abroad at Duke, Lahrichi has found himself in hybrid DKU classes as one of the only remote students. 

“I hated it when the professor was also online and all students (including on-campus ones) were not opening their cameras,” Lahrichi wrote to The Chronicle, describing the challenge of hybrid coursework. 

Waking up for classes at 1:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. as a result of the time difference, Lahrichi likewise feels physically distanced from campus and misses being “close to professors and classmates.” 

Next spring, Lahrichi is excited to come to Duke to resume his in person college experience. He plans to spend time with the seniors who will be graduating this spring, along with classmates he hasn’t seen in two years. He also aims to take advantage of the opportunities of studying on campus, including “making new friends at Duke, going on hikes, attending events—basically feeling like a college student on a college campus again.”

Studying in Durham

DKU first-year Liam Powell started his college experience on-campus in Durham. 

“I chose to come here instead of going online because I knew a lot of the other DKU students were also coming here, and online class times would be difficult with the different time zones,” Powell said.

Powell also sympathized with international students taking remote courses who are unable to travel to China or afford a semester abroad at Duke. DKU students have to take into account Duke’s higher costs of housing, dining and other fees compared to studying in China. Duke rates are estimated at approximately $13,000 per semester, which is between $7,000 and $9,000 more than what a student would pay for per semester at DKU. DKU’s scholarships and financial aid only cover up to full tuition, not room and board or other fees.  

“I feel bad for the international students who were supposed to return to DKU that are stuck here, because room and board is much more expensive here and they don't offer any sort of aid for that. You’re not eligible for federal student loans at DKU because it’s a foreign institution, and people’s 529 plans [investment accounts for qualified education expenses] didn’t transfer over,” Powell explained. 

Difficulty with transferring courses

Other students highlighted the difficulties in finding Duke classes that will transfer to DKU. Duke offers thousands of courses, many of which aren’t offered at DKU, and DKU students have to ensure the courses they take are approved as equivalencies to fulfill major and distribution requirements. For many of the classes offered at Duke, DKU students must petition for equivalency, which is brought before DKU’s undergraduate studies office to determine if it’s an equivalent class.

First-year Josh Wagner described his frustration with course registration. 

“The problem is that there weren't a ton of first-year classes coming in so I had to do a lot of equivalencies myself, and they [DKU] haven’t been as receptive to equivalencies as I was hoping they would be,” Wagner said. “I’m limited on the classes I can take because I’m not really sure what classes I should take at Duke or DKU.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding their return timeline and challenges registering for courses, many DKU students in Durham are enjoying their time here meeting other DKU students studying abroad at Duke as well as peers within the Duke community. 

“Not knowing when we can go to Kunshan’s campus forces you to enjoy the moment and your semester and not just worry about where you’re going to be next,” said DKU sophomore Erica Ham, who has spent the past three semesters at Duke. “The nice thing about being part of DKU and also going to Duke is that DKU is pretty smallm so we already had a pretty somewhat unified community online and have become really close here.” 

Ham also mentioned that one of her friends had successfully transferred from DKU to Duke. 

“We don’t know if that sets a precedent of whether or not we can transfer in the future or how difficult it will be, or if it was just because of COVID-19,” Ham said. 

Transferring between DKU and Duke

Every fall, approximately 50 students transfer into Duke from another college or university. Duke has expressed no preference for transferring DKU students into Duke or officially endorsed that it gives them an extra application advantage. If a DKU student transfers to Duke, they have to give up their dual degree and scholarship.

DKU first-year Rachel Lee has no intention of transferring herself.  

“We explicitly applied to DKU because we wanted to see another part of the world. I love Duke, but I really want to go to DKU because it was my original objective to go to China and explore a place that I haven’t been accustomed to yet. I don’t think I’d give up that opportunity,” Lee said.

Some people are studying abroad at different universities through the the DKU GO and DKU GO-FLEX programs, which are approved study abroad opportunities for students who prefer in-person university experiences around the world but are unable to attend Duke due to travel restrictions or other reasons. 

Returning to China

On Nov. 8th, DKU’s senior leadership sent an update to international students regarding entry plans to China. According to the email, China is now working on a “detailed plan to facilitate international students’ safe entry to the Chinese mainland.” Administrators recommended international students begin preparing necessary visa application materials for entry to China and urged students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if they have not already.

China currently requires foreigners to quarantine for up to four weeks, which DKU students would spend in a combination of hotels and University housing. 

A follow-up FAQ sheet noted that a decision will be announced by Dec. 10, and students planning on studying at Duke in the spring may continue to do so even if approval to return to China is given. Students would be expected to make their way to China after the end of the spring 2022 semester, and if they have the opportunity to attend DKU in the fall, they will be expected to do so.

DKU would also return to the "planned" Duke study abroad cycle, with juniors studying abroad during the academic year and all students eligible for Duke summer sessions.

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


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