An insider’s guide to student life at DKU | Duke Kunshan University

An insider’s guide to student life at DKU

Duke Kunshan students and staff enjoy a dumpling and pierogi-making workshop in Shanghai

By Charlie Colasurdo '23
Student ambassador

Going into the college applications process, I knew I wanted to do something completely different for my undergraduate experience. I had applied to about a dozen U.S. schools (Cornell, George Washington, Claremont McKenna, etc.) but also thrown in apps to various joint ventures, like Yale-NUS in Singapore, NYU Shanghai and Duke Kunshan. Of the three international schools I applied to, DKU was the unknown – if I were to attend, I would be one of the first classes to ever graduate, and it was a gamble.

That was spring 2018. Looking back, it was the best decision I ever made.

Just to preface, no one applying do DKU should operate under the assumption they’re going to Duke, just “in China.” We don’t have Duke basketball or a beautiful gothic chapel – and we definitely don’t have Duke’s fantastic dining facilities. (Am I making a good case for why you should come to DKU yet?)

What DKU does offer is a student experience that is profoundly different to a U.S.-based institution – the ability to live comfortably thousands of miles from home, take top-notch courses with an impressive faculty, engage with students from dozens of countries, and immerse yourself in the culture and language of one of the most consequential nations in the 21st century. (How am I doing now?)

DKU students are bright, that’s a given. They embody the pioneer spirit – which you need to be able to pack up and move to another country or continent. They are mature yet fun, skillfully navigating between advanced biology classes and Shanghai’s dazzling nightlife scene. But most importantly, they’re a community.

Opening night at the Blue Oasis student center

For the international students who move to China, and our Chinese counterparts, we are mixed and mingled every which way. I live in a suite with three guys from all over China. On my floor, I have friends hailing from Uzbekistan, Myanmar, and two towns over from my Connecticut home. We all endure the horrors of 8:30 a.m. classes, trying to figure out what the dining hall’s attempts to pass off as “tacos” actually are, and of passive-aggressive WeChat messages from the student kitchen manager (me) asking students to clean up their messes.

All of us at DKU have worked to carve out a niche on and off campus. Weekdays are jammed with intensive Mandarin classes and Political Econ classes. Then come lunches with faculty or administration to discuss a research opportunity or new policy proposal, and then it’s time for the Gender, Sexuality and Romantic Minorities Club to talk about our trip to Shanghai to see a drag show on the weekend. Four o’clock comes, and Jenny, a local baker, is waiting at West Gate for you and your friends to pick up the apple pie and baguettes you ordered in the WeChat group earlier in the day.

Sports? Come 6 p.m., the fitness center is packed with yoga and weightlifting classes, the soccer field is occupied, and the local pool, basketball, badminton and volleyball courts are abuzz with students. Sneaking off to get a drink at Starbucks or to study at our Blue Oasis student center in the commercial street next to campus is a welcome break.

Some of us spend weekends with our host families, exploring the parks and gardens of Kunshan while being treated to homemade Chinese cuisine. Others spend Friday nights out in Shanghai, clubbing until the 5:15 a.m. bullet train back to Kunshan. Some of us explore the local restaurant scene in Kunshan and are the first to try the Thai restaurant at the newly opened mall downtown. Maybe it’s back to Shanghai to check out the Mexican grocery store or enjoy tapas while looking onto the Pudong skyline from the Bund. Maybe go to a dumpling and pierogi-making workshop run by two Polish expats.

Students and staff sightsee during a DKU Quest trip to Yellow Mountain

Planning a weekend getaway? (DKU doesn’t have Friday classes). You’re two hours from Tokyo, three from Bangkok, and seven from Bali. Or you can take advantage of China’s incredible high-speed rail and head up to Beijing to see the Great Wall or try Peking duck for yourself. Your suitemate from Sichuan province wants you to come to visit for National Day break? Go for it. Maybe you’ll celebrate the holidays by decorating your hall, putting up a Christmas tree in your suite, or watching “Polar Express” with friends.

All in all, from attempting to direct confused Didi (China’s Uber) drivers back to campus, to navigating the crowds at Costco Shanghai, to weeknight group boba tea orders with friends on your floor, your everyday life at Duke Kunshan will be both ordinary and extraordinary in the sense that you are a defining element of it.

Students at DKU are the drivers of the institution in ways they couldn’t be at more established universities. If you’re looking for this kind of student experience – one that allows you to engage in rooted globalism among an incredible group of peers – I can’t think of a better place for you to be.


Charlie Colasurdo is a member of the undergraduate Class of 2023 and a student ambassador. He is from the United States.