International vibrancy of Duke Kunshan campus restored

Duke Kunshan University is reveling in the global vibrancy of its campus following the return of its international students.

The vast majority of the international group scheduled to return were back in Kunshan by the beginning of February, cementing DKU’s reputation as a global learning environment.

The university’s international students left China during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis some three years ago.

They started coming back last summer in a gradual process accelerated at the end of 2022 by the easing of pandemic-related restrictions.

Some of DKU’s international students enjoying a day out in Shanghai

Having the displaced cohort back on campus marked the conclusion of a complex and challenging period, one that led to the rapid implementation of a remote learning system enabling students to study at DKU from wherever they were in the world.

“DKU’s international students have been gradually returning to Kunshan since last August, following their move to remote study and departure from China at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Interim Executive Vice Chancellor Dr. Mary Frances Luce.

“We are delighted to mark the conclusion of the cohort’s return and to see the campus restored to its vibrant best as a multicultural global learning environment.”

(Left to right) Xieling Li, Xiaoyi Kuang (both from China), Emily Khoo (Malaysia) and Sophia Hanani (United States) visit Suzhou

Yitong (Eric) Su, a Chinese student from the Class of 2025, has been supporting freshmen in his role as resident assistant and is enjoying seeing the student community all together in the same location.

“I witnessed how the return of international students has changed the atmosphere inside the residence halls,” he said.

“I saw students from different countries, of different races and with different cultural backgrounds sharing team rooms, attending events and even traveling together.”

He said the diversity is what “DKU is supposed to be like and what we have missed in the past three years”.

As well as a comprehensive support system for students arriving in Kunshan, a series of activities have been organized to help bring students from all walks of life together.

Students ventured to cities in eastern China for the MOMENT initiative

The MOMENT initiative, for example, challenges teams formed of two international and two Chinese students to complete time-limited tasks in Chinese cities, such as Shanghai or Suzhou.

Tekla Takács, a Class of 2026 student from Hungary, said the initiative has helped her to expand her friendship circle, explore new places in China and learn more about local culture.

“I felt really excited coming to campus and my experiences since being here have lived up to my expectations,” she said.

“I only spent one session at DKU learning remotely, but I felt eager to come to campus as soon as I possibly could.”

Takács added it has been “truly fascinating” to see so many people sharing their different cultures and backgrounds with DKU’s “diverse and colorful community”.

“I have seen a DKU community that is made up of all of us; it makes me very blessed to be together finally and I am looking forward to spending the next three-and-a-half years with all of them.”

In their own words, two friends share their thoughts on the return of international students:

Sophia Hanani, from the United States
Class of 2024

I came to China in September of 2022, when zero-Covid policies were in full swing and quarantine was still two weeks long.

After 14 days of doing nothing but eat, sleep and watch China from a window, I finally got to step foot on DKU campus as one of the first few international students to return.

I won’t say quarantine was all bad, though – I got to try chicken feet for the first time and got to practice Chinese in real-life situations for the first time.

Getting my life set up in the first couple of months was a blur, from adjusting to life with health codes to realizing I needed a Chinese phone number and bank account to do literally anything.

Essentially everything I experienced was so surreal, as I was seeing a campus and people I had only seen on zoom for the past two years. Kunshan was nothing like what I could have expected, and I found it so hard to explain everything to my friends and family back home.

What surprised me the most was just how welcoming everyone was.

People I didn’t even know said “hi” to me in the halls and ate lunch with me.

No words could truly encapsulate how much I and my life changed.

Sophia Hanani (first from left) and Yitong Xu (second from right) enjoy Cantonese food with friends in Kunshan

Yitong Xu, from China
Class of 2025

In the pandemic’s lockdown shadow in 2022, Chinese students joked about the campus being as tidy and quiet as a hospital.

We eagerly yearned for cross-cultural interactions to fill campus that we had only heard about from the depictions of 2019 given by senior students.

Finally, within a year, the campus embraces more carefree laughter, sports fields appear more lightsome spaces, and classrooms are bustling once again with people from many different backgrounds.

If you are willing to make friends with international peers but feel hesitant about reaching out, follow the worldwide rule of making friends — start from your shared interests and curiosities, and develop these connections through attention and appreciation!

Although my international friends are from different cultural environments, have a range of personalities and study different majors, our connections started with the shared enjoyment of coffee and tea.

Hanging out at cafes for study, sharing Chinese teas, and tasting Cantonese and Inner Mongolia cuisines lighten our weekend and create happy memories.

Read more stories on the return of international students:

International students settling into Kunshan life
Jan. 2023 – The return of Duke Kunshan University’s international students to China is progressing well, buoyed by the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

International students back in Kunshan after two years away
Sept. 2022 – International students have returned to Duke Kunshan University for the first time since the pandemic forced their departure from China more than two years ago.

Meet the international students from DKU’s new Class of 2026
Aug. 2022 – A new cohort of talented and enterprising international students chosen from a record number of applications joins Duke Kunshan University this month.

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