Around the world, incoming international students forge virtual connection | Duke Kunshan University

Around the world, incoming international students forge virtual connection

August 7, 2020

The annual International Admitted Student Experience is an opportunity for incoming freshmen to make new friends and explore the DKU campus

By Craig McIntosh
Staff writer

With Covid-19 forcing cancellation of the International Admitted Student Experience (IASE) in April, international students in the Class of 2024 have had to wait a little longer than usual to get a taste of campus life at Duke Kunshan.

However, the incoming freshmen have wasted no time in making their contribution to the university’s vibrant, caring community.

Giorgio Battaglia’s home city of Rome, Italy, went into lockdown in early March, around the same time he received an offer from Duke Kunshan. Within a short time, he had not only connected with many of his new classmates online, he was even leading Chinese classes for those just starting out in the language.

“We created a WhatsApp group for all Class of 2024 admits … where we all stated our language level and what classes we wanted to study in and teach in,” said Battaglia, who has been learning Mandarin for five years. “What came out was a pyramid of people where the most advanced taught the intermediate, and the intermediate taught the beginners.”

Battaglia and several other freshmen, including Kennedy McNeilly-Anta and Allegra Fritelli, then began organizing Zoom lessons, which their fellow students met with great enthusiasm.

The project provided a platform for early interactions, something that was especially important as many were coping with lockdown conditions because of Covid-19, Battaglia said. “I think our initiative and the time we spent together was an important and special start to building an even greater community at DKU.”

After an 11 percent increase in applications, 83 international students have accepted their offer of admission to become part of Duke Kunshan’s third-ever undergraduate class.

The Class of 2024 will represent 31 countries, taking the total number of nations represented by Duke Kunshan freshmen, sophomores and juniors to more than 50. This year, the university’s undergraduate program will welcome for the first time students from Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Dominica, Finland, Guatemala, Kenya, Iran, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia and Spain.

As of Aug. 5, seven students had deferred until fall 2021 to pursue gap year programs, including two who have received full scholarships to join the prestigious National Security Language Initiative for Youth sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and another who plans to work with female refugees in South Asia.

“We’ve been really impressed with the exceptional talent, dedication and resiliency shown by this incoming class of undergraduate students,” said Jessica Sandberg, dean of international enrollment management. “Our university continues to attract high-achievers from around the world, and I’m sure this new cohort will be a wonderful addition to the diverse and dynamic community at DKU.”

As incoming freshmen were unable to tour the campus and meet fellow admits at the IASE as planned, the Office of International Enrollment Management has been holding online hangouts and virtual gatherings to introduce them to their new home.

A trivia game organized for incoming students on Facebook saw the winners receive a personalized video in which a member of the Duke Kunshan staff led life-size cutouts of them on a trip around campus, taking in classrooms, dining facilities, the library, the gym, and the landmark Water Pavilion.

“The virtual outreach programs helped me imagine my life as a DKU student, even when I couldn’t be physically present on campus,” said admit Tess Redman from the United States. “Because of the relationships I made through WhatsApp and the numerous other virtual resources DKU has provided, I’m proud and excited to call myself a DKU undergraduate.”

Duke Kunshan is preparing to welcome the new cohort for orientation this month, when they will join about 235 classmates from across the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. The university also expects to welcome about 60 visiting Duke undergraduate students who are unable to enter the U.S., as well as a small number of visiting Chinese students from other overseas universities.

Student affairs coordinator Donglei Li (right) takes full-size cutouts of incoming students Bethany Thackeray and Zoe Murphy on a tour of the campus after the pair won an online trivia contest

As measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have affected international travel, the university leadership has worked with the faculty to design a hybrid teaching strategy that will integrate in-person learning for students on campus with online instruction for those unable to travel to China in time for the start of classes on Aug. 26.

“We are preparing for the likelihood that some of our enrolled and incoming international students and some faculty members will have to take classes remotely until they are cleared to travel to China,” said Scott MacEachern, vice chancellor for academic affairs. “These preparations include a technology upgrade to our classrooms, while our faculty are working with the Center for Teaching and Learning and Duke Learning Innovation to ensure we deliver DKU’s high-quality education to all students, regardless of location.”

Alyssa Walker, an incoming student from the U.S. who has lived in South Korea since she was 14 years old, said she is looking forward to joining the diverse student body at Duke Kunshan. “It’ll definitely be the most international community I’ve ever been in. I’m really excited to meet new people from all different kinds of backgrounds,” she said.

Battaglia also can’t wait to begin his next chapter and to start “building something new” at the university.

“Being part of the construction of a school that is truly innovative and unique is something I hold very dear,” he said. “Even through these confusing and trying times, I remain hopeful that our community will continue to grow.”