Student-led Medical English Program supports over 200 local doctors

A community initiative led by Duke Kunshan University undergraduates has helped over 200 local doctors improve their English since its launch five years ago.

Student volunteers for the Medical English Program (MEP) visit Kunshan hospitals to teach physicians specialized language skills while gaining valuable experience shadowing their hosts.

“It’s a project that not only benefits pre-med students and the doctors but also the community,” said the Class of 2025’s Renata Koviazina from Russia, the current president of the Young Leaders of Global Health Club (YLGHC), the student group leading the program.

“It means people who do not speak Chinese do not need to go to Shanghai or Suzhou for medical services.”

Students visit hospitals in Kunshan to teach English to medics

Lingyi Shen, vice president of YLGHC, said the project goes way beyond language learning.

“Connecting medical professionals who are interested in global perspectives and students who are curious about health care, the project is really a great platform for intercultural and intergenerational communication,” said Chinese student Shen, also from the Class of 2025.

After launching the program in 2019, the student club approached faculty in the Duke Kunshan Language and Culture Center for help with English teaching training.

Professors Joseph Davies and Laura Davies started weekly teaching development meetings focusing on curriculum development, lesson planning and associated training to fully prepare the students for roles as specialized language teachers.

An orientation session at Kunshan No. 1 hospital with student-teachers and doctors

That support was then formalized into a two-credit elective course, “An Introduction to Language Teaching” (WOC208), which counts toward a student’s degree.

The professors described the MEP as the “perfect example of community engagement through mutual collaboration and knowledge transfer”.

“By volunteering to support the local community, our DKU students develop a sense of civic duty and also gain valuable medical experience shadowing doctors at the hospital,” said Joseph Davies, assistant director for graduate English for academic purposes at DKU.

“It is a personal honor to support this program and to witness the continual direct benefits to Kunshan city, the doctors, and our students.”

MEP student-teachers and organizers Chuwei Fan, Holly McClure, Renata Koviazina, Helene Gu and Nathanial Woo

Lessons held in both group and one-to-one formats over 10-week sessions cater for a wide range of doctors’ learning needs, from picking up basic words and phrases to field-specific terminology and the subtleties of cross-cultural communication. A fundamental goal is to improve access to treatment in Kunshan by breaking down communication barriers.

Kunshan No. 3 People’s Hospital was the original partner before the project was expanded to also include the No. 1 hospital.

Dr. Yanting Yang , a gastroenterologist from the No. 3 hospital who has worked closely with DKU on the program, described language as a bridge but said it can often feel like an obstacle for patients in Kunshan who do not speak Chinese.

She said doctors in the city typically want to improve their English to provide a better service for foreigners, to broaden their access to information and opportunities in the medical field and life generally, and to maintain links between DKU and Kunshan hospitals.

The lessons are pitched according to the levels and requirements of doctors

“We really appreciate the opportunity that DKU has given us to learn English,” Yang said.

“It’s a really good experience to be a student again and one that appeals to our enthusiasm for knowledge.

“Lifelong learning is a good habit to develop; we are looking forward to being a better version of ourselves.”

The MEP is supported by community service funding from the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, one of eight research centers at Duke Kunshan.

The program resumed last year after a hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the latest session was overseen by MEP directors Helene Gu, Ricardo Vargas and Rosie Jin, all from the undergraduate Class of 2025.

More than 35 DKU students have volunteered for the program so far, many of whom are planning a career in medicine.

Lessons are held in blocks of 10 weeks

Jin from China said she has gained a lot from working with the doctors.

“No matter how busy they are at work, their persistence in learning English has always inspired me and made me full of passion for English learning,” the global health student said.

“Since joining this project in early 2023, I am really happy that more and more students and doctors have joined this meaningful project.”

Gu, a data science student from the United States, has also witnessed first-hand the dedication of the language learners.

“I worked with three doctors in one-on-one class sessions and it was inspiring to see them want to take time out of their busy days to learn English and help the community,” she said.

“I would see them at 8pm or 9pm taking notes, being diligent students. It is a very meaningful program to be involved in.”

Student-teachers such as Ricardo Vargas (center) get to shadow doctors during their shifts

Vargas, from Colombia, said the MEP team are looking to strengthen ties between DKU and Kunshan hospitals going forward.

“As long as we continue to develop programs such as MEP and shadowing, we will not only build strong connections and more learning opportunities between institutions but also foster greater understanding and deeper connections between health care professionals and students,” said Vargas, who majors in data science.

For Nathaniel Woo, a molecular bioscience major from the U.S., the issue of language barriers in health care is personal; he has grandparents who need a relative to accompany them to appointments and translate.

The Class of 2025 student noted the program is also helping with his own language learning.

“Not only can I share my English skills with the doctors, but they share their Chinese skills with me, so it’s a two-way exchange,” said Woo.

“Interacting with the doctors who are so committed to learning English is a very rewarding experience.”

The next session of the MEP launches on March 1. For more information about the program visit the YLGHC website here.

Students interested in volunteering or taking the WOC208 course can contact Joseph Davies at

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