An oral history of DKU’s Global Learning Semester | Duke Kunshan University

An oral history of DKU’s Global Learning Semester

This year, Duke Kunshan’s inaugural undergraduate degree class entered the second half of their college journey. However, the first undergraduate students at DKU actually arrived much earlier – when one could only see the frame of the campus’s now-iconic Water Pavilion.

In fall 2014, DKU welcomed its first group of 61 students in the Global Learning Semester (GLS) program, starting a four-year journey that would include 500-plus students from 53 universities, 73 professors, and many surprises.

While current undergraduate students are undoubtedly taking the path less traveled, many of their GLS predecessors say their time at DKU fundamentally changed their college years and professional aspirations, as well as how they perceived themselves and the world.

These are the memories and stories of those who were there when DKU’s undergraduate program first began to take shape.

How did GLS begin?

“I still remember we had our inaugural GLS class in the Swissotel Kunshan, where a few conference rooms were converted into classrooms,” says Lingling Wang, associate registrar at DKU. “We were worried about the students’ learning experience. A few days after classes started, my worries proved unnecessary.

“I saw students having small group discussions in open lounge areas, talking to professors over lunch, sitting on the floor reading their assignments. … Those facilities didn’t matter as much as I thought when I saw teaching and learning happening anytime, anywhere.”

“As cliché as it sounds, kicking off a Sino-U.S. joint-venture institution in a hotel is quite a unique experience,” says Jia Zheng, who worked in the Office of Student Affairs from 2014 to 2019. “At the time, I was a Residence Life officer [part of a four-strong team]. Although having a beautiful campus is essential in creating that student experience, I often look back at the fond memories of the Swissotel days, when we converted meeting rooms into offices and classrooms, hotel rooms into a residence hall, and the lounge into our activity space.

“I think it takes a certain type of person to look for these opportunities and choose to be part of it, and this group of students, faculty and staff were just that,” Zheng says. “It’s also this group of people who created the GLS experience, regardless of where we were and whether or not we had a campus.”

What was the GLS?

“Some people view GLS as merely a test case or springboard for DKU’s undergraduate program, but I think GLS was unique in itself,” says Elise Anne DeVido, a visiting assistant professor who taught courses in Asian history, world history, and gender studies.

“I taught 10 sessions with GLS, and it’s not easy to choose the highlights. The scale of GLS was such that students, faculty, and staff could interact, know each other by name, and learn from each other. There was a great deal of freedom to design one's courses and generous resources offered to faculty.”

“Those who experienced it will see the GLS like a short dream,” says Zian Li, who enrolled in spring 2018 semester and is now pursuing a master’s in engineering at Duke University. “I think the difference between DKU and other universities was that we didn’t have a lot of pressure. The faculty and students I met were quite active in organizing activities, and we got to know each other well. There were even more staff than students. It was really an experience you couldn’t have in many schools.”

Daisy Lu, a student affairs coordinator since 2015, recalls, “Students were at the center of every part of our work. We celebrated festivals for different cultures, such as Holi festival; organized a charity five-kilometer run at Yangcheng Lake; took excursions to Nanjing. I still have vivid memories. Sometimes I would see in their WeChat moments how much former GLS students missed their time at DKU and I’d feel thankful that DKU could become a precious memory for them.”


Video produced by Global Learning Semester Class of Spring 2015

What was the academic experience like?

“My favorite part was that every student was assigned a tutor to guide them on all aspects, from academics to life to career planning, which I didn’t have at my own university,” says Fei He, a student enrolled in spring 2018 now working in Shanghai. “I would often talk to my tutor, ‘Grandpa Snow,’ about life and learned a lot from him.”

“GLS was one of my favorite experiences from my undergraduate years,” adds Niranjana Menon, a student from India enrolled in spring 2017 who recently completed a M.A. in political economy at Duke. “I was a sophomore at Mary Baldwin University and was inspired by the opportunity to independently create and direct a full research project at DKU. I received a full scholarship to research the social aspects of microfinance failure in China.

“I came to China with no fluency in Chinese nor any expectations of what my classes would look like, but the classes I took at DKU were some of the most challenging and interesting ones. Energy and National Security with professor Stephen Kelly was my first introduction to the world of energy policy, and professor Kelly has continued being a mentor to me. My self-directed research project on microfinance also formed the basis of my focus in graduate school.”

“My experience as part of the first cohort of faculty at DKU was truly extraordinary,” remembers Vicki Russell, former director of Duke’s Writing Studio who taught Writing Across Cultures in fall 2014. “We built a close-knit community among faculty, students and staff with a shared goal of getting the most out of our shared experience.

“Although logistically challenging, … we launched an innovative academic and cross-cultural learning experience for students from all over the world. My writing class focused on visual literacy, and we focused on developing critical learning skills with photography as the texts we examined. We partnered with the Canadian school for a service-learning project with elementary age school children that focused on photography.

“That was very cool,” Russell adds. “Shortly after I returned to Durham, I decided to retire after 45 years as an educator. It was clear to me that no other work experiences I might have in the future could possibly compare.”

What was it like outside of class?

"Free, sunny, colorful, infinite possibilities, intellectual gatherings, minds colliding,” says Longkai (Logan) Zang, a student enrolled in spring 2017 now pursuing a master’s at Tsinghua University.

“Going into Kunshan for breakfast noodles was definitely a highlight,” adds Brian Grasso, a student from the U.S. enrolled in spring 2017 who is now working in Durham, N.C. “A group of students would sometimes go to this local noodle shop where the noodles were so good! Getting to spend time in downtown Kunshan was an enriching experience, especially because it’s definitely not a tourist location. I loved taking the bus around the city and exploring new restaurants, coffee shops and shopping malls.”

“One of my fondest memories was one day when I described “FLUNCH” [Duke’s program to provide funding for students to take faculty to lunch] to some of the Chinese students,” recalls Ken Rogerson, professor in public policy at Duke who taught Information, Technology, Ethics and Policy in fall 2016. “Two days later, I received an invitation to dinner. Then another. By the end of the semester, almost every student in the class had organized a group to take me to dinner in Kunshan.

“I experienced hot pot for the first time, tasted the divinity of lotus root, practiced ‘chopsticking;’ assessed the relative heat of various chili; learned about the students, their families, their homes and their interests; talked about politics, society, technology and religion; and got 25 new faces into my burgeoning WeChat friends list. I offered to pay every time and was always clandestinely beaten to the bill.

“I was the student more than the instructor,” adds Rogerson, “and I will never forget these culinary adventures with my students. I enjoyed being with them in the classroom, but I really learned to love them and China in the local restaurants.”

How did GLS make an impact?

“GLS programs usually last four months; it’s both short and long,” says former Residence Life coordinator Jia Zhang. “Short in the sense that time always flew by. Just when I started to remember all the student names, it was time to say goodbye. Long in the sense that I witnessed the formation of many lifelong friendships among the students, faculty, and staff during the four months we were together.

“Welcoming a new cohort and sending them off is always bittersweet. From the initial excitement to the final goodbye is like a dream; a dream that’s so good that I have to pinch my arm to convince myself that it was real. Although GLS has come to an end, I cherish the relationships that I formed with our students and colleagues, the once-in-a-lifetime experience that I gained, and the memories that we created.”

“Those six months at GLS were the best education I’ve ever received, says Ma Chuiwei, a student enrolled in spring 2017 now working in Shanghai. “I say this to everyone and even recommend my friends’ kids to attend DKU. Two DKU moments changed my life, and they have to do with two people. One was someone who – when I was about to leave campus and full of uncertainty about the unknown future I was going to face – gave me a reassurance that I’d never heard before: ‘Don't worry, you’re just a 22-year-old girl and everything is just beginning.’

“The other person was Alba, a faculty member in the maternal and child health program, who told me: ‘One, do something different; two, nothing is more important than health; and three, not everyone is as fortunate as you are to have such a great education, so go on to help more people.’

“Those words have influenced all my life choices since then. They changed my perception and attitude toward the world and even set me up as someone who could change it,” Ma says.

“When I taught at DKU, I made it a practice to take two or three students to lunch so I would have a chance to get to know them personally,” recalls Kate Hayles, professor in the literature program at Duke who taught Science Fiction in fall 2015. “Those lunches are some of my most treasured memories from my time at DKU.

“I remember talking to one female student who, although obviously very bright, seemed to have trouble talking up in class. She told me that she was the only child of her parents. As an only child, she felt their expectations acutely and, as a result, had a deep fear of failure. I recommended to her an article I like a lot by John Unsworth in which he talks about the importance of failure and the need to embrace rather than abhor it. It seemed to make an impression on her.

“Later, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with her when I visited the European city where she was in graduate school. We arranged to meet for lunch. Wow! I almost didn’t recognize her,” Hayles adds. “She had completely transformed into a fashionable, confident, outgoing young woman. Undoubtedly there were multiple reasons for this change, but I like to think that some part of it was because of DKU – and perhaps even that lunch we had together two years earlier.”

In an address at the close of the spring 2018 GLS semester, Linda Zhang, who graduated from Duke this summer, told her classmates, “Over the course of four months, we have shown that it’s not only possible but powerful to form genuine relationships and how people can prioritize discussion over debate, permission over persuasion. We have set an example of not only what DKU could be but also how the world could be.

“Many of us had some of our best memories here, but I urge you to not only remember these memories but to recreate them,” she added. “Think of how you can light up someone’s life or an institution or a country like how DKU lit up ours. Don’t just cherish our memories here but also bring it to those who haven’t had the same experiences as we had.

“Bring a piece of DKU wherever you go, because we are not only a part of DKU, DKU has become a part of us.”


Special thanks to GLS alumna and Duke graduate Linda Zhang for conducting the interviews for this article.