The return of Duke Kunshan University’s international students to China is progressing well, buoyed by the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.
Students from all corners of the world are meeting peers and faculty in person for the first time, or reuniting after years of remote learning.
A series of social and practical events are being held over the spring semester to help the students settle in and become familiarized with life and study in Kunshan.
From senior-year students stepping foot on campus again for the first time since early 2020 to freshmen at the start of their DKU adventure, the university is once again teeming with a global mix of young scholars.
Basil Khan from the Class of 2023 was among the last of the arrivals required to undergo quarantine, which was dropped in early January.
But those eight days of isolation did little to dampen his delight at being back on campus.
“Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I smiled so much,” said Khan, who is from Pakistan and majors in political economy and economics.
“It’s the people who make the community. You meet such amazing people with gentle smiles and great discussions. You can never be alone on campus; everyone makes you feel at home.”
One of the things he was most excited about was reuniting with Assanali Kuranbek from Kazakhstan, who he lived with in Turkey “as roommates as if we were on campus” but had not seen for 1.5 years.
“We hugged for a full minute!” Khan said.
With an entrepreneurial eye, Khan opened a bubble tea shop in Turkey in 2021 after struggling to track down his beverage of choice in that part of the world. He spent some of his three years away from China traveling and meeting DKU friends in countries such as Georgia and Serbia.
Khan also worked with Prestige Foundation, an NGO which supports the victims of sexual assault, and right at the start of the pandemic started a digital media marketing company which he later sold.
Rhayssa dos Santos Braz from Brazil was among the Class of 2026 members who recently arrived in Kunshan after spending their first DKU semester in Barcelona, the location of a single-semester, fully customized program for first and sophomore year students ahead of their arrival in China.
“Barcelona was a great transition experience, especially because of the similarity with my home culture. “I loved having an extra experience in an institution that already has such a different proposal as DKU,” said the Brazilian.
Now in Kunshan, she added, “To have arrived at my ‘home’ for the next few years is a thrill that I could not have planned even if I wanted to.”
On her first impressions of campus, she said, “I thought the campus would be smaller due the really close relationships we are able to construct here (not counting the second campus phase) so it really impressed me how all the buildings and the whole architecture space are extremely well done and clean.”
Her aim is to try and “settle in and blend into the local environment” and she is already planning trips to get to know the culture and the language.
“I was happy to meet up again with friends I had already made in my first semester while in Barcelona but even more so to have more possibilities to interact not only with Chinese students but clubs in general.”
On the faculty side, she cannot wait to meet media professors Kaley Clements and Fan Liang.
While keeping her options open in terms of what major to pursue, she enjoys studying social sciences and media.
Alessia Barreca from Italy said it felt “surreal” to finally make it to campus.
“Everyone had been waiting so long for this moment to finally happen,” she said.
“It’s so wholesome to finally meet most of our peers and get to live this experience to the fullest.”
Barreca said she was grateful for the opportunity to study with her new classmates and meet some faculty members in Barcelona, a city “full of art and moved by the eclectic soul”.
Arriving in China, the Class of 2026 student has thrown herself into exploring her surroundings and practicing the Chinese language with locals, from buying daily essentials to tuning into what she hears on the street.
Fluent or intermediate in four languages, Barreca is also passionate about painting and art. She believes in the power of mediation and intends to major in institutions and governance with tracks in political science or public policy.
She said learning to be fully independent was the main challenge she faced as a new arrival in China.
“It was not the first time I went abroad alone, but surely it was the first time of being abroad for a relatively long period of time,” she said.
“I deeply believe that getting out of our comfort zone and getting to be immersed in a diverse environment from our original one is fundamental for changing the air we’ve always been breathing.”
She added, “The opportunity is obviously the one to be able to go beyond the mere fact of being open-minded but eventually being able to change or adjust our perspectives on the most disparate topics, enriching our point of view with parameters previously unthought.”
The Class of 2023’s Zack Schrage had lost hope of ever returning to Kunshan.
“I can’t believe I finally made it back here; I didn’t think I would ever be back,” said Schrage, who was last on Chinese soil in early 2020.
“After we first left, I thought maybe next semester we’ll return and then maybe the next one.
“Then I kind of lost hope, thinking ‘I don’t think this is going to happen’. And then finally there was an opportunity — I was like ‘Yes, I can go back’. It still feels not quite real.”
The data science major, who spent three semesters at Duke while away from the DKU campus, is currently grappling with his Signature Work, a project in which he is developing a programming engine that determines the rules of board games like chess and chequers.
Now back in China, the violinist from the age of six will join the DKU Philharmonic Orchestra — and he is planning all the trips around China he was not able to go on during fall 2019.
“Looking back now, in that one semester, I went to six different provinces / municipalities, hitting up a bunch of different cities. But there are many places I still want to go.”
His target is to visit all the places on the back of China’s cash notes.
“I’ve done two on the back of the 1 and the 100. I have a lot left to do, but I’d be excited to give it a go. Hopefully I can make some progress on that.”
As well as ongoing support facilitating the students’ return, the student affairs team at DKU has put on a number of orientation and welcome events for them.
For example, an International Student Welcome Reception was hosted Jan. 12 on campus to celebrate the arrival of more than 170 international students.
Greeting the students were Scott MacEachern, vice chancellor for academic affairs; Marcia France, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate studies and the Language and Culture Center; and Jill Creighton, dean of student affairs.
The Campus Scavenger Hunt was held to provide newly arrived students with an opportunity to explore the different resources on campus, such as academic support, counseling sessions and engagement opportunities.
Community-building efforts are also ongoing, including a “peer pods” mentor initiative connecting students from China and overseas.
“DKU developed the Culture and Language Peer Pods initiative as a tangible way we can begin the process of unifying our student community,” Creighton said.
“For so long, domestic students have been on-campus with very few international students. Through these smaller peer groups, we hope that students can begin to get to know one another and develop relationships prior to arriving on campus.”
Some 230 Chinese-speaking students have volunteered to help arriving international students “navigate language needs upon landing”.
“Our community-building initiatives will be ongoing throughout the spring semester, and we hope that our students will meet and connect with their peers not only during the program, but also throughout their DKU experience,” Creighton added.
DKU’s international students left China en masse at the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020.
Since then they have been studying abroad remotely, with many based at Duke University in North Carolina.
The return of the international contingent started in August last year but has accelerated since the easing of restrictions on entering China – which included the dropping of quarantine requirements taking effect Jan. 8 — and positive developments globally in the course of the pandemic.