When Peter Ballentine told classmates at Cary’s Panther Creek High School he would be attending college in China, a common reaction was: “Oh, great” … pause … “Wait, what?”
“At first they thought I was insane,” said Ballentine, who leaves for Duke Kunshan University August 5. “Or they thought it was a joke.
“Then they had so many questions, like how is the living situation there, what are classes like? Once they got used to it, they were very happy for me.”
Ballentine’s friends weren’t the only ones left wondering about his choice to study at a brand-new university halfway around the world. His younger sister and brother were also initially blown away. Now 12-year-old Andrew is convinced his older brother is going to marry a Chinese national. “He says it will add some diversity to the family.”
But on a different level, it makes perfect sense that Ballentine would be one of 83 international students in the inaugural undergraduate class of 268 at Duke Kunshan. Both his grandparents and great-grandparents taught English in China. And Ballentine’s family loves traveling, having explored such places as Hungary, Iceland, New Zealand and Oman. And, when Ballentine was 11, China.
And though Ballentine, a National Merit Scholarship winner, was tempted by a free ride to Arizona State, his college decision was sealed when he and his mother Sara visited the Duke Kunshan campus in April for the international admitted students weekend.
“I was a bit hesitant at first” of studying in China, he said. But on the visit, “the campus was beautiful, the faculty were friendly and helpful, and the whole ethos, the whole feel, was one where everyone was very open to new ideas. It was also a place where I would have a say in what kind of culture would develop, and that idea was very exciting.”
On the weekend trip to China, Ballentine also got a chance to meet students who faced the same decision of whether to go abroad. “They were very open to going to China and open to new ideas. They were very social, interested in talking to everyone, very friendly, and very interested in other cultures.”
That weekend, during a tour of nearby Suzhou, Ballentine tried foods he had never tasted, including lotus pods and pork belly. And he and some other students decided to explore the city on their own, away from the tour group.
He found this adventuresome spirit contagious. “It brought me out of my shell.”
One more advantage in Duke Kunshan’s favor was Ballentine’s familiarity with Duke. More than a year ago, he acted on his interest in research and applied to volunteer in the lab of Duke engineering professor Aaron Franklin. He was not only accepted, but did so well that he was hired on as a paid part-timer. This summer, he works several days a week at the French Family Science Center.
“Usually, when you hear that a high school student has been given the opportunity to work in a university research lab with a bunch of Ph.D. students, you think this must be through some special program or initiative. Not with Peter,” said Franklin, the James L. and Elizabeth M. Vincent Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “He approached me on his own and quickly became an integral part of the group. In fact, it didn't take long for me to find myself forgetting that he was still a high school student only coming to the lab a few hours each week. He integrated that well with the Ph.D. students.”
Ballentine still had a few doubts about his college choice, such as whether he might be homesick. “It was nerve inducing at first -- is this going to work out, are we going to have good class? But I will be getting a Duke degree, and Duke is riding on this program being successful. Now it’s really exciting to be part of the first class, part of a Duke university in China, and I help determine how it goes.”
While Franklin is sorry to see Ballentine leave his lab, he said, “I think his decision to study in China is bold and very exciting. Peter’s willingness to step out of his comfort zone and study in a different country, learn a new language, and help develop an inaugural undergraduate program is really inspiring, especially when you consider the options that were available to him in the States.”
At Duke Kunshan, Ballentine will work as a resident adviser, which is why he must go over a week early for training. He will study material sciences and physics, and one day hopes to be a researcher and university professor.
“Peter represents the type of impact that can be made when Duke’s resources are fully utilized in reaching out to the community,” said Franklin. “He could have been just another amazing Durham-area high school student who would explore a range of options for college and likely choose the top-ranked school to which he was accepted.
“Instead, he was brought in to the Duke engineering community, found passion for scientific research, made strong contributions to a research project, became deeply affected by the Duke environment, and ultimately decided to explore DKU as an option for his college experience.”
Ballentine, who is now busy packing, is certain he made the right decision.
“Nothing could really compare to DKU -- a Duke education, a small class size, get to establish the culture of the school and being with students who were really adventurous. It checked all of these boxes, even those I didn’t know I was interested in.”