Taking the time with a major decision | Duke Kunshan University

Taking the time with a major decision

May 20, 2020


Undergraduate students can try a broad range of courses in their first and second years

By Craig McIntosh
Staff writer

As an aspiring law student, Remington Gillis started at Duke Kunshan with a clear plan: Focus on public policy courses and major in political economy. Yet it was an entirely unrelated class that helped her realize her true passion.

When her academic advisor recommended she broaden her interests in her first year, Gillis registered for Film Editing 212. “The class was great,” she said, adding that even a year later she was still daydreaming about the subject and looking up YouTube tutorials. “I realized that ever since I was young I’d been in love with film.”

When it came time to choose a major, although she had focused largely on political economy, Gillis selected media and arts. “I just kept thinking: I’m never going to forgive myself if 30 years from now I’m doing a job I hate when I could have done something else,” she said.

Gillis, who is from Dallas, Texas, said she’s still considering law school after graduation, as she believes her media and arts degree, “and the knowledge that comes with it, will set me apart from the political science applicants.” She’s also open to opportunities in public relations and the movie industry.

Undergraduates at Duke Kunshan declare their major toward the end of their second year, giving them almost four semesters and a summer to explore their interests through a diverse range of academic courses, and co-curricular and extracurricular programs. It’s not usual for students to change track after trying something new.

Haitong Lin from Guangzhou, China, was leaning toward media and arts when she enrolled at Duke Kunshan. Yet she registered for classes in integrated science and computer science in her first year to get out of her comfort zone.

“Surprisingly, I ended up liking them, and they changed what I thought I was capable of,” said Lin, who eventually chose to major in data science. “I’d never typed a single line of code before entering college.”


Duke Kunshan currently offers 15 majors and plans to expand its offerings

Duke Kunshan currently offers 15 majors covering such interdisciplinary areas as environmental science, global health, applied mathematics, ethics and leadership, and molecular bioscience. As most majors have multiple disciplinary tracks, students have 39 different options when it comes to decision time. For example, a student might pair global health with either a biology or public policy track. The university is also working to expand its offerings into even more cutting-edge fields of study.

When Duke and Wuhan universities designed Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate degree program, the goal was to create majors with “a uniquely 21st century focus that combined broad, integrated knowledge with deep, specific technical expertise,” said Noah Pickus, dean of undergraduate curriculum affairs and faculty development, who also serves as associate provost at Duke.

“At DKU,” he said, “students don’t have to choose between becoming wide-ranging, creative thinkers or well-trained disciplinary experts. They can do both.”

Advice and support

In addition to the variety of courses to choose from, professors and academic advisors also can play an essential role in the decision-making process when students are selecting a major.

After gaining a foundation in geography and green issues at high school, Ruihan Wan from Beijing had planned to focus on environmental science at college. However, he said courses on politics and American culture in his first year gave him the confidence to explore another interest: history.

Wan said one of his professors, Zach Fredman, not only inspired him by providing many constructive suggestions but also by sharing his own university experience.

“He told me that his parents wanted him to study law, but he insisted on his interest in history and became a professor. I was moved, as I’d seldom received encouragement from teachers or my elders about my interest in arts and humanities. … He encouraged me to choose what I was interested in,” said Wan, who is majoring in U.S. studies with a history track.


Academic advisors and faculty members, such as historian Zach Fredman, provide constant support to enhance the college experience

Gillis said when she decided to make a late switch to a media and arts class in her second year, her academic advisor pulled all the stops to make it happen, while the professor added an extra seat to make sure she could attend. “Having a professor believe that media and arts was the right major for me made me feel supported,” she added.

When students first arrive at Duke Kunshan, the Office of Undergraduate Advising assigns them to a primary academic advisor, who provides support for the duration of their studies. Once a student declares a major, he or she is also able to seek advice and recommendations from a faculty major coordinator in their discipline to help identify any questions, problems or issues, and to potentially guide them in creating a Signature Work.

“Our advising team comprises faculty and primary-role advisors who foster academic success, personal growth and student engagement,” said Tourgeé D. Simpson, Jr., associate dean for academic advising. “Over the first two years, we really encourage students to explore their academic interests and declare a major based on personal reflection and considerations for their graduate school or career plans.

“Quality advising is more than the sum total of courses and majors; it’s a student-centered signature experience that intentionally engages students around discussions related to curricular and co-curricular development.”

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“I’ve taken so many ‘random’ classes; classes I would probably never have taken at a traditional university. This has allowed me to expand my research interests and inspired me to redefine my passions.” - Alberto Najarro from El Salvador

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Lin said that while her advisor and professors were crucial to her final decision, she also took inspiration from the seminars, workshops, lectures and information sessions organized throughout her first two years to introduce different disciplines and career paths, such as an event to promote the role of women in science.

Extracurricular programs also can be important. In addition to coursework, undergraduates are able to explore their interests through a variety of student clubs and organizations, as well as activities laid on by research centers and non-academic departments.

Bei Chen from Chengdu said he planned to focus on the sciences, specifically chemistry, until he developed a new interest while helping create a vlog for the Humanities Research Center.

“It was the first time I’d gotten to know about making video. I instantly became interested, and I started to learn about photography, editing, color grading, and so on, by myself,” Chen said. “I declared media and arts as my major because I love it. I love the feeling of doing projects with my classmates and learning different things from them. This learning process is awesome.”

A liberal approach

Having the opportunity to spend almost two years exploring an interdisciplinary curriculum is a key component of Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate degree program, which aims to develop students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and broad knowledge base.

While for some students, this exploration can lead to a change of focus, for others, it can reinforces their interest in a certain discipline while providing greater understanding of how it interconnects with other areas.

John Aniekan Lewis from Lagos, Nigeria, studied economics in high school and has aspirations of entering politics. He said he knew from the start he wanted to study political science and economics at college, but he still took courses in different subjects in his first two years.


John Aniekan Lewis explored how his core interests, economics and political science, intersected with other disciplines

“A liberal arts education has been great for me,” said Lewis, a political economy major. “It’s helped me explore major areas and interdisciplinary courses, giving me a broad array of knowledge, as well as explore my passions and interests to my complete satisfaction.”

Mixing students with a range of interests and backgrounds in small-size classes also gives them the opportunity to learn from multiple perspectives and work together across disciplines, cultures and other boundaries.

“Most global challenges are interdisciplinary, so having at least some knowledge about different areas of study is important to be a well-rounded academic,” said Alberto Najarro, an environmental science major from El Salvador who had originally envisioned studying economics. “I’ve taken so many ‘random’ classes; classes I would probably never have taken at a traditional university. This has allowed me to expand my research interests and inspired me to redefine my passions.”

Gillis added that the biggest benefit she has noticed of a 21st-century liberal arts and sciences education is the diverse range of knowledge she and her classmates can draw from.

“I feel confident that I can sit down and have a conversation with an applied mathematics major, or a sociology major, or any of the other majors available, and be able to genuinely discuss a topic within their field with them,” she said. “I’m not just a media and arts student, I can interpret data sets, understand dense scientific research papers, analyze public policy, and think critically about political theory.”

Thinking back to Film Editing 212, the class that stoked her passion for movies, Gillis added, “Having this class as one of my first at DKU made it clear to me from the beginning that taking classes outside of your major should be the rule, not the exception.”

Hear more students discuss the reasons behind their major decision in this video.