Think positively in the face of difficulty, uncertainty | Duke Kunshan University

Think positively in the face of difficulty, uncertainty

Yan Zhang was the class speaker for commencement 2021. She gave the following address at Duke Kunshan’s in-person graduation ceremony on May 7.

By Yan Zhang
M.Sc. in Global Health, Class of 2021

Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman. I am Yan Zhang, a master’s student in global health. I am pleased to be standing here and speaking on behalf of my classmates.

It has been a long year, hasn’t it? A special year for us all. The Covid-19 outbreak came suddenly, oversetting our plans and exerting extra pressure on us new graduates. Classes turned to remote mode, bringing inconvenience for us all, and a special challenge for professors and staff members to keep an eye on sleepy students. Global health students cancelled field trips across the globe. Most students cancelled one or two semesters of study at [Duke University’s] Durham campus. Fewer 2021 graduates received satisfying results from fall recruitment programs and Ph.D. applications.

We also experienced the longest quarantine ever – hopefully the longest ever. The lucky ones had the company of their family, while the less lucky ones had to stay alone. The loneliness was particularly strong for those extraverts, strong enough to overturn their minds.

Covid-19 made one hardcore young scholar “sell out.” When I first met him at DKU, I saw the great academic talent and devotion to “Health for All” that sparked within him. But after months of isolation in Kunshan last spring, he felt like he had to make an instant change to his life, to move to the next stop in life as soon as possible. So he finished his thesis early and turned straight to a startup company in AI medicine. It is always hard to let go, especially for responsible people. I am not sure if he has any regrets. I would say it’s a loss for academia, but a brave personal choice and a milestone for him.

The pandemic has brought great challenges to us in staying positive and maintaining such executive power, but it has also made us think deeper. That young scholar told me the other day that – no matter in academia or in industry – he holds the wish to make life easier and better for everyone. Indeed, we can achieve self-fulfillment in different positions as long as we are determined in our initial desire.

I, on the other hand, was one of the lucky ones who kept company with their family during the outbreak [in China]. I was mostly at home in Kunshan during quarantine. I enjoyed the care from my family, the occasional catchup with classmates, and Zoom meetings with the class. Last spring, I also received a great opportunity to do an online internship at a medical consulting firm in Shanghai, through a DKU alumni member. I would say, were it not for Covid, I might never have discovered my potential in the industry.


DKU creates a feeling of home, and I naturally learned a lot from professors and classmates, not only skills and knowledge but also about their experiences and ideas. They have prepared me for adventures in any corner of the world.


Despite that internship opportunity, which I was sincerely grateful for, I also encountered my own challenge in the time of Covid: A loss of courage.

I came to DKU with great passion for global health, following my bachelor’s study in public health. DKU creates a feeling of home, and I naturally learned a lot from professors and classmates, not only skills and knowledge but also about their experiences and ideas. They have prepared me for adventures in any corner of the world. But after a year of staying at home during Covid, I found myself becoming a mommy’s baby – I wanted to sidestep uncertainty. I thought about staying in Kunshan and living a cozy life without any unwelcome accidents. I hesitated to take the offer from the company in Shanghai.

The invitation to make this speech came just in time to remind me of the recognition from my kind professors. I realized I should not question myself and make easy decisions simply driven by uncertainty. I had dreamed big; now I can recall it.

Graduation comes with departure and choices. We may have been worried or confused in this difficult year but, thinking positively, we already are the luckiest crew with manageable losses.

We have time and choices. Many of us here have found our way outside DKU – jobs, internships, gap years – while many are not 100 percent certain about their choices or are still seeking. I believe we need not worry too much about time or rush into decisions, thanks to modern medicine and longer life expectancy. We can take our time to learn more about ourselves, to choose our career path, to make our fortune or realize our dreams. A few friends we met on our first day at DKU are not sitting here today. Some of them decided to take a gap year, taking internships and occupying their minds while waiting for things to get better next year.

We have support from our family and friends, faculty and staff members. We also have dreams. I believe we students came to DKU with dreams. The pandemic created anxiousness and forced us to change, but it also made us grow stronger together. I hope we take our dreams, friendships and love with us wherever we walk through.

In the time of Covid-19, in this time of graduation, I hope we can all take our time and think carefully about what we really desire. Take it easy and think positively as you face difficulties and uncertainties.

I wish that you all will achieve the life you initially desired.

Thank you.


Yan Zhang graduated as a member of the Class of 2021 from the master of science in global health program at Duke Kunshan. Her main research interests include mental health and elderly health. While studying at Duke Kunshan, she contributed to scientific papers and completed internships at the Suzhou Commission of Health, Suzhou Mental Health Center, and medical consulting company IQVIA.