Karen Nielsen from Sidney in Maine, U.S, joined Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate Class of 2022 as an early decision applicant. Here, she reflects on making such a big decision at a young age and talks about life on campus.
Signing an ED agreement is a big step for a high school student. What was going through your mind?
I had no idea what I wanted to do for college. I went on a tour where I saw 20 colleges in nine days, and I was going through all their stuff and thinking, “They all say the same things.” When it got to the fall of senior year I had a list of 12 schools I was going to apply to.
Then my dad spotted some mail one day that was in Chinese and English. It was a packet from Duke Kunshan University, and I thought, “Wait, this actually sounds significantly more interesting.” It felt like something I would actually want to do, more than anything else I’d read about. Even though at that time it hadn’t been established, DKU was where I wanted to be.
What did others think about you wanting to study in China?
I didn’t tell anybody where I was applying to college. I think five people knew I was applying as an ED student: my two best friends, my parents and my grandma. What drove my decision was that I looked at the list of the places I was going to apply, and I thought, “If I get into every single one, I’m only going to pick DKU.”
I also knew that if I didn’t get in anywhere, I’d just go and volunteer for a year and then re-apply. It wasn’t going to be the end of the world. The fact I would have chosen DKU from every college on my list, and the confidence that if it didn’t work out I could do something else, made it OK for me to do ED.
What appealed to you most about Duke Kunshan?
I know a lot of people wanted to come to DKU because it was the inaugural class, but that wasn’t in my mind at all. It was the fact they were offering an integrated science and liberal arts curriculum. On the college tours I would say, “Look, I love piano, I want to learn languages, I want to take chemistry classes,” and they’d reply: “Whoa, you can’t do all those things at once. That’s not allowed.” But literally on the front of that packet from DKU it said the university offered an integrated science and liberal arts curriculum. That was exactly what I wanted.
So you felt pretty confident then that the decision you were making was the right one?
Part of what gave me that confidence was that I cyberstalked everything about DKU. I found grad students’ blogs, and I looked at all the faculty positions the school was hiring. I scoured for information, and I wrote an email asking lots of questions. I really did my research.
How did people react when they eventually found out you were coming to Duke Kunshan?
I was walking to my jazz band class when I got a text from someone at DKU saying they wanted to call me. I wondered if they were calling to say I’d been denied. I took the call and they said, “You’re accepted, and here’s a ton of money.” I was very shocked. My Dad is the IT director at my high school, so I went very fast – I tried not to sprint – to go find him. My parents were OK with the idea of my applying, but they probably though it was a bit far-fetched, that DKU might not take anyone ED. But they did.
My friends asked me if I was sure I wanted to go to the other end of the world. I don’t know why I was so chill about it, but I was very confident, and I’m happy now. At the school I went to, a lot of students end up going to college in Maine or New England, and when someone leaves it’s like “Oh my goodness.” My Dad started telling a joke when people asked him where I was going – he’d say “As far away as possible.”
It's now six months on. How’s it been going at Duke Kunshan?
Every once in a while I stop and think, “I’m taking a break from studying to order Chinese food at 1 a.m. to my dormitory in the middle of China – most people would just drive to an IHOP.” But this is what my life is. Normally at colleges you have older undergraduates teaching younger students things, but we’re the first class so we’ve just bumbled along. But we have teachers who really, really want to be here and students who are willing to bet their lives on the school.
Stuff can go wrong, but we all really want it to work, and we all really care about it, and we’re all willing to just talk about anything. There’s a conglomeration of people who just want to learn and make this a really great institute for learning, which is what makes it all worthwhile.
You mention there’s a lot of communication. Do you feel your feedback as a student is valued?
It’s a big university, so you can say things and they aren’t always heard right away. One thing that did get heard was about the workload last semester. You’d walk around school at 2 a.m. to go to bed and you’d see 40 or 50 people still awake doing work. It was a little too intense. But at the end of the semester they asked us to say accurately how many hours we’d spent on some classes. A lot of people said it was a high amount, and the workload has been significantly better this semester. The school has been working really hard to make it a healthy student life.
Another thing with being the first class was that there were no clubs. We felt we needed something to have a student life, so that we’re engaging with things. The school really helped facilitate us setting up clubs. Even though we have a small number of students, we have 40-plus clubs.
Did you start any clubs?
I’m working on getting the ultimate Frisbee club off the ground and getting us into competitions, and I participate in a defense boxing class, which makes me feel empowered. I’m part of the GSRM (gender, sexuality and romantic minorities) group on campus, and also the music club. They’re the clubs I go to meetings for, but I’m in the WeChat groups for about another 20.
What message would you give the new batch of ED students?
By choosing to apply here you probably did something you really wanted to do. Plus, the world’s not about to end. So coming to DKU might turn out to be the best decision of your life. When you get here, you will find yourself completely immersed in a community of people who really want to be here. And that’s truly an amazing thing.