At Duke Kunshan University, running has become a way for students to connect with the local Kunshan community, explore China and compete locally and nationally — all without needing to speak a word of Mandarin.
Senior Kennedy McNeilly-Anta, the president of the DKU Running Club, describes sports as “the easiest form of intercultural communication.” While he describes his Mandarin as “okay,” McNeilly-Anta felt that he could “just communicate and engage” with other students through sports while he attended a Beijing high school and a summer at Nanjing University.
The DKU Running Club was one of the first clubs founded by the DKU inaugural class of 2022. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the club faced challenges as membership plummeted and only members of the club’s leadership team remained active.
Now, the club has 80 members.
In January 2023, over 170 international students returned to campus as DKU lifted its COVID-19 restrictions. A junior at the time, McNeilly-Anta planned to “revitalize the running scene at DKU” by organizing three group practices a week for the DKU Running Club, which previously had none. After one quarter, those three weekly practices increased to six.
As the president of the executive board for sports clubs at DKU, McNeilly-Anta also hopes to change DKU sports culture by motivating students’ commitment to sports clubs. With the fast-paced, seven-week structure of DKU classes, he notes that students often prioritize their studies.
“If push came to shove, [students] would choose to do academics above all else,” he said.
International students have also used running as a way to “engage with the local community” and an opportunity to explore Kunshan and surrounding areas, McNeilly-Anta said. On Sunday mornings, the DKU Running Clubs join local runners and around 10 local running clubs to run around the Kunshan community.
DKU Running Club organizes ParkRun, one of DKU Athletics’ largest events that is open to all of the DKU community and local Kunshan community. Organized by the club and composed of student volunteers, ParkRun is a timed five-kilometer run which McNeilly-Anta describes as an “opportunity for intercultural communication, friendly competition and athletic development.”
The average participant turnout is about 125 to 150, with over 200 attendees from a range of ages, cultures and fitness levels seen at some of the most recent ParkRuns held during the fall 2023.
Throughout McNeilly-Anta’s time in China, running was an opportunity to engage with the local community and make “over 200 running friends” at DKU. He believes that it has become a similar opportunity for DKU students in the club.
“I think running has provided our international students with an opportunity to do some inter like some exploration of Kunshan,” he said. “Through some of our long runs, and through going to competitions, local competitions and so on, a lot of our runners have been able to explore areas of Kunshan that they wouldn't have explored.”
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