Valerie Sheares Ashby was impressed after meeting some of Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate students
The undergraduate program at Duke University accepts students from around the world, from all kinds of economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds, creating a vibrant melting pot of cultures and perspectives.
How do you make a campus like that more diverse?
By adding students from Duke Kunshan to the mix, Valerie Sheares Ashby, dean of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, said on a recent visit to the joint-venture university.
Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate students have an option to spend a summer and a semester studying on Duke’s campus in Durham, North Carolina, in their junior year, and work is well underway to prepare for the arrival of the inaugural class in 2020.
In addition to meeting with university leaders and faculty, Ashby took the opportunity on her first trip to the Duke Kunshan campus to meet with about 40 freshmen from the Class of 2022.
“A Duke student is a different student – fearless, smart as a whip, willing to ask hard questions, eager to learn, kind, thoughtful, introspective. Those DKU students today were absolutely all of that. I was in heaven,” Ashby said after answering questions from the group over lunch.
Trinity awards nearly 80 percent of undergraduate degrees at Duke in disciplines across the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. Depending on their major and interests, many Duke Kunshan students will study at Trinity once they arrive in Durham.
Ashby, who became the college’s dean in 2015, said the goal is to foster a student body so diverse that young people are interacting with classmates from different cultures and economic circumstances on a daily basis.
To give an example of the diversity at Duke, she said the next undergraduate class will have 1,721 students from 80 countries, including from every corner of the United States, and from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
“The Duke Kunshan experience is a Duke experience, but it’s not the Duke Durham experience,” she said. “I’d love for the students from Duke Kunshan to be able to integrate at Durham, but not as if they’re at home. I want them to take advantage of something in the Duke Durham experience that they can’t get here in Kunshan. I want them to build relationships with students outside of their cohort here.
“The DKU students will learn a lot, and they’ll appreciate the wholeness of the Duke experience even more. In Durham, our students are so balanced. They work very hard, but they also participate in many things that aren’t academic – intellectual, maybe, but outside of the classroom. I want DKU students to have that experience.”
Duke Kunshan’s pioneering students will also add a new dimension to the Duke Durham experience, she added, because by taking a chance on a brand-new university, the Class of 2022 has shown a “different kind of confidence” to the high achievers enrolled at Duke.
“They desired something so much that they took a chance on it. That would be so good for the students at Durham to recognize. They ought to seriously respect that. I don't want our students to miss out on the opportunities to engage, to ask about the DKU students’ choices and experiences.
“They’re all Duke students, but this DKU group is extraordinary. Our students will have things to learn from them, certainly.”
Administrators are laying the groundwork for the arrival of Duke Kunshan’s first student cohort in Durham, with efforts focused on maximizing the entire experience, from tailored academic advising to residential life and social activities that encourage interactions.
With this in mind, Ashby had a packed schedule of meetings with chancellors and faculty members in Kunshan to discuss teaching and research opportunities, and how to further strengthen the connection between the Kunshan and Durham campuses.
She had meetings with Chancellor Youmei Feng and Executive Vice Chancellor Denis Simon, as well as Haiyan Gao, Duke Kunshan’s inaugural vice chancellor of academic affairs; Marcia France, dean of undergraduate studies; and Tourgee Simpson, associate dean of academic advising.
From left: Chris Clarke, senior assistant vice president of development for Duke’s Trinity College; Dan Kiehart, dean of the natural sciences at Trinity; Youmei Feng, chancellor of Duke Kunshan; Valerie Sheares Ashby, dean of Trinity; Haiyan Gao, Duke Kunshan’s inaugural vice chancellor of academic affairs; Charlie Squires, Duke’s managing director of international development for Asia; and Marcia France, Duke Kunshan’s dean of undergraduate studies.
Ashby also learned more about Duke Kunshan’s research capabilities from professor Xin Li, director of the Institute of Applied Physical Sciences and Engineering; Ming Li, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Junjie Zhang, director of the international master of environmental policy (iMEP) program; and John Ji, assistant professor of environmental health science.
“I was so impressed. It’s more exciting than even I thought it was going to be,” she said. “The faculty was amazing. It was great to hear them talk about why they chose DKU. They wanted an interdisciplinary experience, a highly collaborative environment, really strong students and a global experience. That sounds like Duke faculty to me.”
Like many of Duke Kunshan’s administrators, Ashby’s background is in scientific research. She holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she chaired the Department of Chemistry prior to joining Duke.
She said she had originally thought of Duke Kunshan as a teaching experience, but after meeting with the faculty she now has a greater appreciation for the breadth of research possibilities.
“My brain is now full with multiple versions of ideas for our next steps. These two institutions have a really unique opportunity,” she added. “In terms of their scholarly interests, the DKU faculty is tracking along nicely with our big science initiative.
“They were talking about data science and computing, genetics and genomics; they’re the same topics we’re talking about at Duke. I’m thinking now about how they could benefit our faculty and that initiative.”
In addition to visiting Duke Kunshan, Ashby’s trip from June 13 to 19 also took in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, where she attended academic meetings and alumni gatherings.
“It’s taken me a while to get to DKU, but it’s all been more than I expected,” she said. “It’s left a fabulous first impression.”