An Insider’s View of Duke Kunshan

Noah Pickus, an associate provost at Duke and DKU’s dean of undergraduate curricular affairs and faculty development, shares a glimpse of life on campus.

WHAT DOES AMERICA MEAN TO YOU?” I ask the twenty students in my American studies seminar. It’s the first day of class at Duke Kunshan University.

We are sitting at a dark-wood, rectangular table in the Conference Center. The shades are drawn to keep out the afternoon sun, though you can see through them to the Innovation Building that is going up next door. The occasional thump of construction punctuates our conversation.

“Individual rights, risk-taking—the American Dream,” come the first set of answers. Then doubts emerge. “It seems like everyone loses their roots in America and becomes disconnected,” says Chris, who grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. “And what about all the homeless people in America?” asks Yizhou, who is from Jiangsu province in China. “Why is no one responsible for them?”

The course is about American notions of freedom and identity and about how Chinese writers have understood the “Beautiful Country,” as the United States is called in Chinese. I am co-teaching with Selina Lai-Henderson, a new DKU faculty member from Hong Kong who recently published her first book, Mark Twain in China.

Our class is the most global I’ve ever taught in twenty-five years. Half the students come from all over the world: Korea, Taiwan, Denmark, Serbia, Pakistan, and the Philippines, as well as from New York to North Carolina. And half the students come from Shanghai, Zhejiang, Beijing, Shandong, and a handful of other Chinese provinces. Even within that broad range of locales there is a deeper complexity to these students’ lives. Honey, from Pakistan, speaks five languages: Urdu, Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. She wasn’t raised in China but helps foreign students navigate it with ease: ordering goods from Taobao (China’s Amazon), arranging food delivery from town, or translating at a restaurant during the regular outings of “Honey’s Food Group.”

Here, there’s too much diversity for one way of thinking to become the default. “What would be the most controversial thing you could tell your parents about DKU?” I ask the students. “That I’ve become a Socialist,” says Rachel, from New Rochelle, New York. “That I don’t want to join the Party,” offers Yue, whose home is in Huzhou.

These students enrolled in a university that has no graduates, that had just begun to hire its faculty, and that offers non-traditional majors taught in experimental formats. They are pioneers who want to create something new.

“It was exciting to think that no one else had been a student here before,” says Rachel. “I wanted to start things from the ground up and not fit into a culture.” She first visited China in the ninth grade, and coming back was also a major draw: “I wanted to be an ambassador to China for black people, to see what I could learn about being Chinese and what I could teach about being black.”

Chris, who started studying Chinese on her own in Asheville, was drawn to DKU after years of listening to Chinese music and watching Chinese TV. She wanted to experience China’s “collective spirit” firsthand, and to “get a different view of America,” she says. “China is the future,” adds Mia, from Ethiopia. “And I’m here to build bridges.”

For Chinese students, a major draw was the chance to expand their options. “I’d seen in films and TV how different America is,” said Yue. “I wanted to be part of a more global world with choices about where I might work and live.” “I want to be rooted in China,” said Yuchen, who comes from Qingdao, on the coast east of Beijing, “and connected to the world.”

Now that they are here, the students are taking classes that draw on sources from different cultures. On one day in the “Foundations of Social Science” course, they compare the story of Genesis and the teachings of Confucius. In different classes, they examine ideals of love, marriage, and family in Eastern and Western societies, debate the ethics of AI and of world poverty, and plunge into Chinese and global environmental and health issues.

All students take at least two intensive seminars over seven weeks, rather than the standard four classes over fourteen weeks. The pace is breakneck, especially so for some of the non-native English speakers. Students feel under stress from multiple factors—the compressed schedule, the new environment, and, for some, the new expectation that they participate actively in class. “I came here to build my confidence,” says Yanfei, whose home is in Jiangsu province. “DKU is helping me do that, but right now it’s very hard to adjust!”

The faculty have been preparing for these challenges for a year; there is a constant conversation about teaching strategies. For Emily McWilliams, a philosopher who came to Duke from Harvard, there’s a clear advantage to the coursework: “I adore how immersed and invested the seven-week structure allows the students to be. At every other place I’ve taught, it feels like my class is competing for attention. Here, students come to class ready to dig in.”

In other cases, student uptake of concepts is immediate. Scott MacEachern, an archaeologist who taught at Bowdoin College for twenty-five years, has predominantly Chinese students in his social-science section. During a discussion about Western stereotyping of the “Third World,” students pointed to Taylor Swift’s ”Wildest Dreams” video as a two-minute distillation of colonialism.

The students’ adventurous spirit is on full display at the weekly dinners that my teenage daughter, Mira, organizes at our faculty apartment. The first week, she teams up with Honey, Momoko (Zimbabwe), Heibai (Anhui province), Krista (New Zealand), and Zarfishar (Pakistan) to make pancakes. Maple syrup is in short supply here, so the cooks improvise with chocolate and bananas. Like magic, twenty students apparate at our door to feast.

The next week, Kali, who is from Ethiopia, and Yuchen help make pakoras and bhindi masala. Thirty students show up and cluster around the kitchen’s white countertop and wooden dining table. Kali, a whirlwind of energy, wants to become a family therapist. She’s taking the course on love and marriage taught by Yu Wang, a sociologist who came to DKU from the University of Wisconsin. “Students didn’t come here to drink and hook up,” says Kali. “They’re looking for more serious, long-term relationships.”

Yuchen focused on science in high school, because, he says, he was bored with the way they taught social science and humanities. But he came to DKU because he read Machiavelli and fell in love with history and politics as part of a Model UN. Here, he’s one of the six student fellows selected to participate in the newly launched Planetary Ethics and Artificial Intelligence humanities lab.

Throughout the cooking, eating, and cleaning, the range of topics all these students are discussing is dizzying: Elon Musk, safe spaces, Trump and Xi Jinping, the point of a college education, gender relations in China, the meaning of home. “We didn’t come here just to learn about each other’s cultures,” says Momoko. “We came here to debate and to challenge each other.”