An Insider's View of Duke Kunshan

By Noah Pickus

Pickus representing DKU at the Bloomberg Square Mile Relay in Shanghai
Student dinner party hosted by Pickus' daughter Mira

 It’s the first day of class at Duke Kunshan University and I ask the 20 students in my American studies seminar, “What does America mean to you?”

We are sitting at a dark wood, rectangular table in the Conference Center. The shades are drawn to keep out the afternoon sun, though you can see through them to the Innovation Building that is going up next door. The occasional thump of construction punctuates our conversation.

“Individual rights, risk-taking—the American Dream,” come the first set of answers.

Then doubts emerge. “It seems like everyone loses their roots in America and becomes disconnected,” says Chris, who grew up in Asheville, North Carolina.

“And what about all the homeless people in America?” asks Yizhou, who is from Jiangsu province in China. “Why is no one responsible for them?”

The course is about America notions of freedom and identity and about how Chinese writers have understood the “Beautiful Country,” as the United States is called in Chinese. I am co-teaching with Selina Lei-Henderson, a new DKU faculty member from Hong Kong who recently published her first book, Mark Twain in China.

Our class is the most global I’ve taught in 25 years. Half the students come from all over the world: Korea, Denmark, Serbia, Pakistan, and the Philippines as well as from New York to North Carolina. And half the students come from Shanghai, Zheijang, Beijing, Shandong, and a handful of other Chinese provinces.

Even within that broad range of locales there is a deeper complexity to these students’ lives. Honey, from Pakistan, speaks five languages: Urdu, Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. She wasn’t raised in China but helps foreign students navigate it with ease: ordering goods from Tao Bao (China’s Amazon), arranging food delivery from town, or translating at a restaurant during the regular outings of “Honey’s Food Group.”

Here, there’s too much diversity for one way of thinking to become the default. “What would be the most controversial thing you could tell your parents about DKU?” I ask the students. “That I’ve become a Socialist,” says Rachel, from New Rochelle, New York.

Pickus with Selina Lei-Hendersen following a productive class discussion
Mira (second from left) with students after another successful dinner party

These students enrolled in a university that has no graduates, that had just begun to hire its faculty, and that offers non-traditional majors taught in experimental formats. They are pioneers who want to create something new.

“It was exciting to think that no one else had been a student here before,” says Rachel. “I wanted to start things from the ground up and not fit into a culture.”  

She first visited China in the 9th grade, and coming back was also a major draw. “I wanted to be an ambassador to China for black people, to see what I could learn about being Chinese and what I could teach about being black.”

Chris, who started studying Chinese on her own in Asheville, was drawn to DKU after years of listening to Chinese music and watching Chinese TV.

“I really wanted to experience the more collective spirit I kept seeing in China,” she says, “and to get a different view of America.”

“China is the future and I’m here to build bridges,” adds Mia, from Ethiopia.

For Chinese students, a major draw was the chance to expand their options.

“I’d seen in films and TV how different America is,” says Yue, whose home is in Huzhou. “I wanted to be part of a more global world with choices about where I might work and live.”

“I want to be rooted in China,” adds Yuchen, who comes from Qingdao, on the coast east of Beijing, “and connected to the world.”

Now that they are here, the students are taking classes that draw on sources from different cultures. On one day in the “Foundations of Social Science” course, they compare the story of Genesis and the teachings of Confucius. On other days, they contrast the Tunisian historian Ibn-Khaldhun with the Chinese philosopher Xunzi and the French sociologist Durkheim.  

In different classes, they examine ideals of love, marriage, and family in Eastern and Western societies, debate the ethics of AI and of world poverty, and plunge into Chinese and global environmental and health issues.

All students take at least two intensive seminars over seven weeks, rather than the standard four classes over 14 weeks. The pace is breakneck, especially so for some of the non-native English speakers.  Students feel under stress from multiple factors – the compressed schedule, the new environment, and, for some, the new expectation that they participate actively in class.

“I came here to build my confidence,” says Yanfei, whose home is in Jiangsu province. “DKU is helping me do that, but right now it’s very hard to adjust!”

For Emily McWilliams, a philosopher who came to DKU from Harvard, there’s a clear advantage to the coursework.

“I adore how immersed and invested the seven-week structure allows the students to be. At every other place I've taught it feels like my class is competing for attention. Here, students come to class ready to DIG IN.”

For the faculty, who have been preparing for these challenges for a year, there is a constant conversation about teaching strategies. Bill Winner, a biologist who came from NC State, allowed the students to discuss the meaning of each question before they sat down for a test. He wanted every student to feel confident about the vocabulary and what they were learning.

“The students were in disbelief,” he says, “and the feeling of camaraderie was palpable.”

In other cases, student uptake of concepts is immediate. Scott MacEachern, an archaeologist who taught at Bowdoin College for 25 years, has predominantly Chinese students in his social-science section. During a discussion about Western stereotyping of the “Third World,” students pointed to Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” video as a two-minute distillation of colonialism.

The math faculty notice how eager the students are to take on the most demanding questions.

“In the U.S.,” say Zhe Liu, who taught there for 14 years, “there was always a small group of students who came to office hours. Here, the majority of my students come and ask for new problems to work on.”

The students’ adventurous spirit is on full display at the weekly dinners that my teenage daughter, Mira, organizes at our faculty apartment. The first week, she teams up with Honey, Momoko (Zimbabwe), Heibai (Anhui Province), Krista (New Zealand), and Zarfishar (Pakistan) to make pancakes. Maple syrup is in short supply here, so the cooks improvise with chocolate and bananas. Like magic, 20 students apparate at our door to feast.

The next week, Kali, who is from Ethiopia, and Yuchen help make pakoras and bhindi masala. Thirty students show up and cluster around the kitchen’s white countertop and wooden dining table. Kali, a whirlwind of energy, wants to become a family therapist. She’s taking the course on love and marriage taught by Yu Wang, a sociologist who came to DKU from the University of Wisconsin.

“Students didn’t come here to drink and hook up,” says Kali. “They’re looking for more serious, long-term relationships.”

Yuchen focused on science in high school because, he says, he was bored with the way they taught social science and humanities. But he came to DKU because he read Machiavelli and fell in love with history and politics as part of a Model UN. Here, he’s one of the six student fellows selected to participate in the newly launched Planetary Ethics and Artificial Intelligence humanities lab.

As a joint-venture between Duke University and Wuhan University, DKU features a robust set of research labs and centers. These range from the Center for the Study of Contemporary China to centers focused on Data Science, Global Health and on Environmental Research. As a predominantly liberal arts and sciences undergraduate college, faculty draw student collaborators primarily from the undergraduate population. This means that students like Yuchen and Kali have an opportunity to get involved in research from the beginning of their education rather than only at the end, They can undertake systematic study of real-world questions relevant to society, politics, and the economy of contemporary China, for instance, or analyze the impact of high ozone levels on the health of persons living in the Yangtze River delta region.

Like these centers, the range of topics all these students are discussing in our apartment is dizzying: Elon Musk, safe spaces, Trump and Xi Jinping, the point of a college education, gender relations in China, the meaning of home.

“We didn’t come here to just to learn about each other’s cultures,” says Momoko. “We came here to debate and to challenge each other.”

Pickus is associate provost at Duke and dean of undergraduate curricular affairs and faculty development at Duke Kunshan University.