What defines you as a Duke student?
Do you identify as a student of this institution based on the classes you take in your personalized academic track? The unique memories you make in your four years on this campus, from FDOC to basketball season to beach week? The connections you’ve made that will shape your soon-to-be-illustrious career? The shining degree you’ll earn at the end of your four years?
Or, instead, is it still just that moment when you first opened your acceptance letter, however many years ago?
I’ve been led to presume that’s the case, seeing the way Duke students have loved to hide behind anonymous online confessions on YikYak and the like. I’ve seen endless renditions over the last three years of students complaining that Duke Kunshan students are acting too much like they’re “real” Duke students despite not going through the same admissions process. I’ve stopped giving these posts much thought, especially as they become increasingly irrelevant with time. But in light of Monday morning’s optimistically phrased announcement, I think it’s past time I address the reality of my life as a supposed DKU third-year.
For those who are unfamiliar with the recent news, all DKU international students, minus a few specific exceptions, are expected to “return” to China this spring. This comes as a surprise to many of us who had committed academically, financially and mentally to stay at Duke for the year. We thought we had a choice, but turns out, once again, that was another false hope in the long-winded road that has been this pandemic.
However, the issue for me goes beyond that. Yes, I am a member of the DKU class of 2024, but I have never known any other campus but this one here in Durham. I matriculated in the fall of 2020, along with the rest of my class, and have been here all five semesters since. My community is built almost solely of Duke students, and to a few regular acquaintances, the fact that I’m a DKU student sometimes comes as a surprise. I’ve taken Duke classes, competed on Duke teams and represented Duke across the nation. I am earning a Duke degree along with my Duke Kunshan degree, as is the nature of my dual-degree program. Yet, with no choice in the matter, I am to “return” to a campus I have never been to in the middle of my junior year. So what sets me apart from the rest of my class here, really?
The common rationale (from both students and administration) used to differentiate Duke and DKU students is the fact that the admissions processes for both schools are distinct from one another—and for the record, if your self-worth as a student here is actually based on your acceptance letter, shame on you. But if you were to ask me what might really differentiate me from a “normal” Duke student, I could give a few examples. I’ve fought harder for every executive board position I have because I was initially not allowed to run for any year-long posts. I get last priority on housing, and would probably be housed on East as a junior right now if it weren’t for a good (Duke) friend choosing to enter the second round reassignment portal to be my roommate. I cannot waitlist classes or overload—DKU prioritizes me “experiencing” Duke/Durham for “the first time” over my studies, despite the two full years I have spent here already. And most importantly, I have lived every day since arriving here building a thin exterior to veil the extreme anxiety of never really knowing for sure which hemisphere I might be sent to in the next few months.
I have always been somewhat aware that this day would come. Originally, I never applied to Duke at all—I committed to DKU wholeheartedly, and I still do one day want to see China. Yet, DKU has betrayed my trust in ways that have unforgivably damaged my academic career—and now, by ruining the plans I had in place for the year, my professional career as well.
The greatest (and most stressful) of DKU’s insults against me is the issue of my major. When deciding which school to commit to, DKU Global Recruitment Officer Lindsay Parker announced two new majors in my class's admitted students WhatsApp group. To be precise, her exact words were: "All of these will be available to incoming freshmen (Class of 2024)". Among the new majors, the Computation and Design major (equivalent to Duke's CS/VMS IDM) was one of the main reasons I eventually chose to commit to DKU. After a brief academic exploration early in my freshman year, I decided it would be my intended major. Yet on July 6, 2021, a year into my time at DKU, an email was sent out by the Undergraduate Studies Office stating they would “not allow any student with an expected graduation date before spring 2025 to declare these majors.” All subsequent outrage from those of us who were already on track to complete these majors was effectively shot down by DKU administration, who refused to hear any of it.
Due to DKU’s limited major selection, I declared the closest major to my intended field of study in my sophomore year: Data Science—which is still completely different from Computation and Design. Duke Kunshan’s negligence of my academic commitment has effectively blocked me from studying the subject for which I chose the school in the first place. All attempts to get DKU to reconsider the situation have been futile, as they have been steadfast in their postponement of the major. I cannot personally afford to take the gap year necessary for me to be able to declare the major. But back in 2021, I still had at least a year left at Duke, which is home to a flourishing computational media program and the resources necessary for me to expand on the academic goals that had been shut down by DKU. I continued my coursework here, where I am easily on track to graduate with the CS/VMS IDM if I could choose to do so. But at DKU, I will definitely not be able to complete the data science major I was tricked into spending thousands of dollars on.
I have indeed tried my hand at the transfer portal—twice now, but to no avail. Leaving Duke altogether never felt like a real option to me, because I truly do love this school and that shows in all that I have accomplished here. Evaluating me, and students like me, who are asking to stay at the school we currently attend (and are still receiving a degree from) under the same circumstances as a regular transfer student automatically goes against the “holistic” approach that the Admissions Office loves to preach. My academic standing at this school is nowhere near what it would typically take a student to be removed from this institution, but here I am, getting removed nonetheless.
The Duke Office of DKU Relations, the DKU Office of Global Education and the Duke Office of Undergraduate Studies redirected all and every inquiry since Monday’s announcement to the Town Hall webinar DKU held over Zoom on Wednesday evening (EST). With many facets of this return plan up in the air, we were met with vague answers in the chat from Marcia France, DKU's dean of undergraduate studies:
“We’ll support you online until you are able to get to China.”
“We recognize some students have made longer term plans… You might check into whether any of your plans are ones you can continue remotely.”
“We don’t anticipate that China will close again. If the global COVID situation changes and flights into China are not allowed, we would re-evaluate the situation.”
To my understanding, there is no contingency in place and no consideration of students’ academic planning. DKU’s number one priority is to save face after so many years of a split student body, no matter what implications this may have on their students. Wednesday’s webinar droned on about the administration’s mission to create a “less fragmented community” and return students to their “home institution.” But DKU stopped being my home institution a while ago.
DKU stopped being my home institution when their faculty teaching in-person “forgot” to open Zoom rooms for international students trying to attend classes at obscene hours. DKU stopped being my home institution when my professors berated me for not taking their class seriously when I mentioned it would not be reasonable to attend lectures synchronously at 2:30 am while taking a full load of Duke courses during the day. DKU stopped being my home institution the moment they did not allow me to pursue the academic track I committed to the school for.
There is nothing for me at DKU. I will have to start over in the middle of my junior year, both socially and academically. My projects, jobs and other initiatives here at Duke will be left abandoned. I have spent the last few days warning the organizations I am a part of that I may soon be a hole that they need to fill, midway through the year. I will begin again, a freshman in standing, trying to finish a major I do not want. In only a year and a half, I will have to make up for what should’ve been a four-year-long college experience.
Seemingly for the sake of reputation, profit and whatever else an institution is greedy for, DKU has disenfranchised me and my international peers for years—and this is just the current episode in a saga. I do not speak for anyone but myself when I say I can no longer afford to be a student at DKU while they continue to sabotage my academic goals. I also cannot let the work I’ve put into Duke go to waste, not when I have much more to do and so much more to lose. I urge anyone with compassion and the power to do so to push for the implementation of a procedure between DKU and Duke that will alleviate these issues. This procedure would be one where students who would like to remain at Duke receive fair consideration of their issues and where students like me, who have been here for two and a half years, can properly choose their academic path.
To the Duke administration: While I am endlessly thankful to you for accommodating DKU international students on campus for the last few years, I request that you recognize the impact DKU students have had on your campus and community. You post our accomplishments and initiatives on Duke channels, claiming us as Duke students. It is only when it is a matter of our needs that you ever draw a distinction between Duke and DKU. Many of us are now, whether it was intended or not, integrated within the Duke community, and we have our niches here like anyone else. Now, it is up to you to decide whether you have ever truly seen value in the society we have built here on campus, or if your initiatives are purely just for show.
To the DKU administration: I ask you to have compassion for your students beyond the reputation of your school. For three years, DKU international students have been in a state of limbo, pushing around our academic goals for the potential of a future “return” that seemed to only move further and further away. It is beyond unfair to imagine students can afford to drop all they have begun to plan, after so many years of uncertainty, at the whim of the administration. We are more than demographic statistics or bank accounts—we are the students who have built this institution in its inaugural years. It is time to respect that relationship.
To my peers, both at Duke and DKU: Help me. I ask for your support in getting the administration to hear my voice, for me and the others who have been upended by Monday’s news. Spread the word that we are no more than pawns in both institutions’ battles for pride and profit. Tell anyone you know and anyone who can help. I’m relying on the strength of numbers—because no matter how much I write, it might never be enough.
I’ve lived every moment since August of 2020 wondering what comes next for me. There are many kinds of instability and insecurity, but not knowing which country I’d end up in semester after semester was by far the most unexpected one. But now, this battle is on my doorstep—and I need you to listen.
Ooha Reddy is a Duke Kunshan junior studying in Durham. Her column “The Rage Room” runs every Friday.
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Ooha Reddy is a Duke Kunshan University junior and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously an opinion managing editor for Volume 117.