Pioneering a Learning Community in China | Duke Kunshan University

Pioneering a Learning Community in China

February 17, 2015
Pioneering a Learning Community in China

Sitting in his office on Duke’s West Campus, Professor William Johnson reminds a visitor that “a university is not about the big tall oak trees and the beautiful gothic wonderland; it’s about a group of people who are really involved in learning.”

Johnson is one of more than 25 Duke faculty and academic staff members who were on site in Kunshan, China, for Duke Kunshan University's first semester of operations last fall. When asked to characterize DKU, Johnson and others describe a hybrid of an intensive learning community and a modern tech startup.

“The learning environment was out of this world,” said Johnson, who taught a Greek civilization course at DKU. “It was really involved and involving. Students would write letters of thanks and use phrases like, ‘This experience changed my life.’”

The semester began in an unconventional setting, with students and faculty living and working in a hotel until preparation of essential campus buildings was completed in October. Linda Daniel, the Duke librarian who served as interim library director at DKU last fall, said setting up services in a hotel and then moving mid-semester required faculty and staff to be flexible and resourceful, but that the DKU community pulled together to navigate the disruption.

Edie Allen, the assistant program director for the English for International Students Program at Duke’s Graduate School who helped establish DKU’s English program, agreed that the proximity of faculty and students contributed to a uniquely interactive learning environment.

“The close living quarters made collaboration and student interaction even richer than it is here [at Duke], I think,” Allen said, citing the DKU community’s participation in activities like nighttime reading groups and co-curricular community service trips.

Although Allen called the strengthened sense of camaraderie an “artifact of this moment” in the life of a young university that has not yet hit its growth spurts, Johnson expressed hope that students’ energy will carry DKU forward with a similar sense of excitement and bonding.

“Everyone felt as if we were pioneers in this endeavor,” Daniel said, “and I think everyone who was there was really eager to pitch in to deal with the challenges to make it a very successful academic semester.”

Johnson noted the success of the academic endeavor was evident when, after classes, groups of students would stay to follow up with questions and explore topics further.

While they all focused their attention on making the experience a positive one for students, Daniel, Johnson and Allen each returned home with positive personal memories of their own.

“When you go on vacation, sometimes you come back and you feel like you’ve seen incredible sights, but it quickly dissipates,” Daniel said. “You go back to your normal routine, and it recedes. But I’ve brought back friendships that will carry me through my life.” She hopes to return to DKU, a place she said values the librarian as an integral part of the academic community, and she encourages other Duke faculty to consider working at DKU. “It’s an opportunity to expand your view of what your possibilities are in the world to do good work,” she said.

Johnson traveled to Kunshan with his wife and 12-year-old daughter Benita, who was adopted from China. She spent the semester enrolled at the Suzhou Singapore International School. “She’s so confident, and she matured an extraordinary amount,” Johnson said of his daughter. “She’s always been proud to be from China, and we certainly fed her cultural tidbits, but to be able to experience China for four and a half months—that’s a big deal. It was intellectually stimulating beyond our wildest dreams.”

Allen mentioned that while many Duke faculty members took a “Chinese survival class” two nights a week, she hopes to continue studying the language. “I see it as a long-term life goal to keep working on both reading and speaking Chinese,” she said. During Allen’s time at DKU, she and colleague Vicki Russell also facilitated a community service project for their English students at a local international school—a project she hopes might offer a model for continued service-learning opportunities at DKU.

Of Kunshan and greater China, Daniel, Johnson and Allen have lasting memories: watching families commute to school on scooters, mountain biking through banana trees in small villages, camel riding in the desert, hiking on the islands surrounding Hong Kong and interacting with Chinese people who extended to them, despite language barriers, what Johnson called “freely flowing warmth and support.”

Though they agree that DKU presented logistical challenges they wouldn’t have faced here at Duke, the semester was, to them, an indisputable success.

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This story is originally posted on Duke Global.