I could have toured the Eifel Tower, walked the streets of Madrid, cruised through the canals of Venice, and attended endless parties and clubs filled to the brim with other college students. It would have been a great time, no doubt. But this was not what I wanted out of my study abroad experience. I wanted to go to a place where I would be pushed to question my own ideas and think in different ways.I wanted to go to a country where I would have to grow as a person in order to become accustomed to everyday life, where I would constantly be pushed out of my comfort zone. I wanted to experience a culture that was different in so many ways from my own, a culture that many people around the world do not understand. After all, studying abroad is a time in which you have endless resources to help you explore and immerse yourself in a new region. Traveling to a region so far away and so different for my previous study abroad experience made a lot of sense to me. I knew I would have all of the resources I could possible need along the way, resources I might not need if I ever wanted to travel to Europe by myself and resources I would not have access to if I ever came to China again.
During a time in which the U.S. and China must cooperate on countless issues ranging from North Korea to climate change, the relationship between the two countries has never been more important. In my view, going to China would give me perspectives, experiences, and a familiarity which would be useful no matter which field I decided to go into, whether it was business, politics, or any other field to be honest. I also think having a grasp of the Chinese language, no matter how small, is a skill not many other people have.
Now that my experience at Duke Kunshan is over, I realize there were several factors that made my semester such a unique and impactful experience. Among the first things that stood out to me from my experience at Duke Kunshan were the opportunities I had to develop relationships with my professors. Because all of the classes were seminar sized, I communicated with and developed strong relationships with my professors, something I would find much harder to do at Duke because of the larger class sizes. With Duke Kunshan being such a small community, I also found that professors were generally more responsive and willing to get to know students, eat lunch with students, and individually provide advice on student projects. By becoming part of such a tight knit community, my ideas were heard more than they may have been at other universities. Being part of a two-person Chinese language class was also an opportunity I do not think I would have received anywhere else, and it allowed me to grow as a speaker at a much faster rate. Duke Kunshan is also still a new, transforming university, which means I had many more opportunities to shape the campus around me.
Whether it was in the classroom, in the dorms, or on the basketball court, Duke Kunshan was an environment that always facilitated cross-cultural communication. Throughout the past four months, I’ve learned how Chinese people eat. I’ve learned how they have fun, and how they celebrate different Chinese holidays. While my conversations outside the classroom were enlightening, the in-class discussions were what made me question my own thinking. After discussing topics ranging from communism to perceptions of body image, I gained new perspectives that transformed the way I view issues around the world. I also found myself contributing much more to classroom discussions, and learning how to clarify my arguments while doing so. I realized that when speaking with non-native English speakers, crafting the clearest arguments would lead to a much more effective dialogue. When you combine some of the best faculty in the world with some of the smartest, most curious students from around the world in a small classroom environment, you learn a lot.
I came to Duke Kunshan expecting to be pushed out of my comfort zone, gain new perspectives, and experience Chinese culture. What I did not foresee was how much more I would gain from the experience and how the experience would make me grow. I left Duke Kunshan a more confident person with the ability to express ideas with greater clarity. Now I head home with new ways of thinking, my ideas questioned. What else can I learn? Can I challenge my other preconceptions?