‘Second-class citizens’: DKU students at Duke express frustration with housing, social scene integration

<p>Duke Kunshan University exchange students live in Epworth House, pictured above, and East House.</p>

Duke Kunshan University exchange students live in Epworth House, pictured above, and East House.

Duke Kunshan University exchange students reported challenges establishing a sense of community at Duke, citing frustration with housing and difficulty integrating into the campus social scene.

The first DKU study abroad cohort spent a semester in Durham in fall 2020. The following year, Duke gave DKU students the option to study at Duke’s Durham campus when COVID-19 travel disruptions barred DKU students in the U.S. from traveling to China.

Although the study abroad program in Durham is branded as integrating DKU students into the broader Duke community through participation in student groups and activities alongside their Duke peers, DKU exchange students expressed mixed responses following their semester stay at the University.

DKU juniors Faith Ho and Daivik Thanki, president and vice president of DKU House Council respectively, believe that barriers to social integration reflect deeper divides that make DKU students feel like “second-class citizens.”

Ho believes that it is common for study abroad students to face challenges with social integration. However, she feels that DKU students have a particularly difficult time overcoming social barriers because of a lack of “institutional frameworks [and] initiatives to actually bridge” the gap between DKU and Duke students.

In a Monday email to The Chronicle, Valerie Hausman, associate vice provost of Duke-DKU programming and strategy in the Duke Office of DKU Relations, wrote that DKU students are “welcome to engage in virtually all activities available to Duke students,” citing participation in student organizations, research with faculty and intramural sports as examples.

She added that the Duke Office of DKU Relations provides programming to help DKU students adjust through orientation sessions, career and graduate school panels and a weekly newsletter, among others.

More recently, DKU students did not receive emails about events celebrating the last day of classes and details on picking up wristbands. DKU exchange students were informed at 9:20 p.m. in an April 23 email from Michael Croal, assistant director of Student Involvement and Leadership, that they had been added to the late wristbanding process.

Life on East Campus

Like many of her international peers, DKU junior Soumya Lahoti spent her first year in Durham and her sophomore fall at DKU’s global site in Barcelona. Her next two semesters were spent in Kunshan before she returned to Durham in 2024 to study abroad in her junior spring. 

Coming back to Durham as a junior, Lahoti found navigating the social scene at Duke more challenging compared to her first year because she feels like she belongs to a DKU community that is separate from the broader social scene at the University.

Lahoti identified housing as a “geographical barrier” for the integration of visiting DKU students into the larger community at Duke. Since the 2022-23 academic year, DKU study abroad students have been assigned housing in East House and Epworth on East Campus, away from the University’s juniors and seniors who live on West Campus and 300 Swift. 

“Even right now I find myself hanging out with DKU people more than Duke people even though I know people [...] from freshman year,” Lahoti said. “I feel like DKU kids are going to get a lot more isolated, and we need to have proper structures in place to prevent that.”

As executive members on DKU House Council, Ho and Thanki serve to bridge the DKU community and Duke social scene but find it to be an “awkward position” as upperclassmen living on East Campus.

At the start of the 2024 spring semester, two dozen formerly-abroad Duke juniors were assigned to dorms in East House due to housing shortages on West Campus. As rooms were made available, the majority of students moved to West Campus, though eight decided to stay behind with their preferred roommate in East House. 

Ho believed that it is unfair that Duke juniors were given the option to choose which dorms to live in but DKU exchange students were not.

“How is that supposed to make us feel?” Thanki asked. “It feels like we're lab rats and then the other students are asked: ‘If you're not okay living with the China campus students, you can leave, but they'll be there, you know, in their observation chamber.’”

Ho emphasized that the neglect of DKU students’ housing situation is also evident in the mishandling of students’ health insurance enrollment. She explained that for the first two weeks of classes, the insurance records of DKU students were withheld from the Student Medical Insurance Plan, preventing them from accessing health services.

Duke administration did not address whether DKU students experienced issues accessing health services in the Monday email to The Chronicle.

Ho also noted that she did not face similar issues when she spent her first year in Durham, which for her indicates that the problem might be specific to DKU exchange students.

Difficulties of social integration

Some DKU exchange students have found it difficult to integrate as international students during their brief stay in Durham. 

According to Lahoti, her class is the “last batch” of DKU students who started their in-person college experience in Durham. She added that DKU students participating in future study abroad semesters at Duke may struggle to integrate into the social scene, as many of their Chinese peers will be stepping onto an American campus for the first time.

According to Lahoti, her friends have made comments about how they do not have any Duke friends or interact with non-DKU students in their classes, leading them to “only hang out with DKU people at Duke.”

“Their entire point of studying abroad and meeting new people is kind of wasted,” she said. 

DKU junior Hanxi Bao, who spent her first two years at DKU, stressed that it is easier for first-years and sophomores to naturally integrate into the social scene because everyone is new to Duke. She believes that adjusting to a new cultural setting and actively forging fresh connections at the same time poses difficulties for DKU students, who are both juniors and international students in Durham.

“I think I'm a person who's kind of active and willing to make friends but I feel like everybody just has their little circle,” Bao said. 

Lahoti observed that wristbands are necessary for students to participate in fraternity parties. However, since wristbands are not easily accessible to most DKU exchange students, “You're cut off from a major social scene … that more than 30% of [the] student body is involved with,” she said.

Ho and Thanki said that DKU exchange students face barriers to engaging with clubs and Greek Life because their one-semester stay does not meet the long-term commitment expected by many of these groups.

They believe that DKU exchange students want to make a meaningful impact in the broader Duke community, but that many Duke students are surprised at their desire to join.

Hausman wrote that the office “work[s] each year to strengthen [the] relationship [between DKU and Duke] to make every DKU student feel they are part of the Duke family and to address the logistical challenges to fully integrating DKU students, given they are here for only one semester.”

“I just wished that there were more clubs that gave us a chance,” Ho said.

Moving forward

DKU exchange students believe that solving the housing situation is the first step towards integrating them into the University’s social scene.

Lahoti recognizes the difficulty of spreading DKU students across West Campus dorms due to the logistics associated with QuadEx. However, she believes a solution can be found in Duke’s expanded housing options, such as through the recent acquisition of the Blue Light Living apartment complex.

Bao echoed this sentiment, noting that changes in the housing assignments for DKU students would foster greater interaction with other Duke students. 

She also highlighted the role resident assistants play in connecting DKU students with Duke students. Bao wished that the RAs at East House organized more events to facilitate resident connections, especially with the several Duke juniors residing in the dorm.

For Ho and Thanki, the ability of the DKU House Council to advocate for meaningful change is limited because it only lasts for one semester. They found that the lack of representation of DKU students in Duke Student Government has also prevented the voices of DKU exchange students from being heard.

They believe that Duke, as the parent institution, must take responsibility to strengthen its ties with DKU in order to facilitate connections between DKU exchange students and their Duke peers.

“Welcoming junior-year DKU students to Duke each semester is an essential part of the partnership between our universities, as is the ongoing support Duke provides to DKU students during their short time in Durham,” Hausman wrote in the Monday email.

“I do think that we are important to Duke’s story,” Ho said. “ ... I just wish Duke as an institution [took] us seriously and listen[ed] to our demands and our needs and wants — I don't think that's too much of an ask.”

Lucas Lin | University News Editor

Lucas Lin is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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