Almost nine months after the Covid-19 emergency forced Duke Kunshan to close its campus and move classes online, the university welcomed its third cohort of undergraduate students on Aug. 26 with a resounding message – stay determined, stay optimistic and stay united.
More than 230 members of the Class of 2024 attended this year’s undergraduate opening convocation at the Poly Opera Theatre, central Kunshan, along with university leaders, faculty, about 160 visiting students from Duke and other U.S. universities, and special guest Hui Li, vice mayor of Kunshan.
About 80 first-year students based overseas who were unable to return to China for the start of the fall semester because of international travel restrictions joined the convocation via livestream.
Despite Covid-19 temporarily keeping them apart, members the Class of 2024 were encouraged by speakers from Duke Kunshan, Duke University and Wuhan University to unite in learning the lessons of today to build a stronger, more cooperative tomorrow.
“The pandemic has made us sober to the fact that no one is an island,” Youmei Feng, chancellor of Duke Kunshan, said in her opening remarks, in which she urged students to strive to achieve a global vision.
“Will the future world be more beautiful, prosperous and peaceful, or will it become more polluted, divided and chaotic? The answer lies in your choices and actions,” she said. “It is only when you pursue beyond individual values that the meaning of life can be elevated. … Work diligently and conscientiously for a better world.”
Making his first public address as Duke Kunshan’s new executive vice chancellor, Al Bloom spoke on interconnectivity, inclusion and the importance of listening carefully to those whose knowledge, views and values differ from your own.
“That recognition of difference and of commonality will equip you to become architects and engineers of shared understanding and shared purpose across the divides of our world,” he said. “Whatever the tensions that engulf us, from relying on virtual teaching, to confronting the impact of climate change, to bearing the disruption and the human tragedy of the pandemic, to enduring rising political tensions, all of us at DKU must remain determined and optimistic in pursuit of our ideals for our world.”
He added that among the ideals Duke Kunshan cannot afford to surrender is the notion that “higher education can, and must, motivate and prepare its graduates to be determined optimists and actors in seeking and constructing a more inclusive, responsible and cooperative world.”
Vincent E. Price, president of Duke, and Xiankang Dou, president of Wuhan University, both recorded video messages especially for the convocation. Price reminded first-year students not to take on too much as they begin university life, to make time for renewal and reflection, and “always remember to enjoy yourself.” Meanwhile, Dou urged students to expand their horizons through cultural exchange.
The incoming Class of 2024 represents 31 countries. This year, Duke Kunshan welcomes its first students from Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Dominica, Finland, Guatemala, Kenya, Iran, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia and Spain.
As some international students and faculty overseas will not be on campus this fall, Duke Kunshan has designed a flexible teaching strategy, with courses in the undergraduate degree program offering both in-person and remote learning options.
Class of 2024 speaker Giulia de Cristofaro, who is Brazilian-Italian, remarked on her classmates’ “leap of faith” in choosing Duke Kunshan amid the uncertainties and delays of the past few months.
“In this small yet vibrant community, I have found a place I would like to consider home, with people who I hope one day will become my big, mixed family,” she said in a recorded video message. “Deciding to join an internationally inclusive community and following a liberal arts curriculum is a reflection of the open-mindedness of the DKU community. I know each one of us is unique, and I’m certain that our differences will unite us.”
Shuhuai Zhang from Sichuan province, China, represented the Class of 2023. He spoke of the research opportunities, academic advising and career support offered at Duke Kunshan, which provides students with seamless integration among study, research and practice.
More than 40 new faculty members from across North America, Europe and Asia will join the undergraduate program this fall. However, the faculty representative at this year’s convocation was one of the university’s longest-serving educators, Don Snow, professor and director of the Language and Culture Center.
In his address at the Poly Opera Theatre, Snow urged first-year students already on campus to make a special effort to forge connections with those who arrive later.
“One of the problems we face as a community this year is that instead of all being gathered here we are literally a global community – we are scattered all over the world,” he said. “For those of us who are already here, yes, we should indeed find new friends among others who are here. However, as others arrive from other lands and cultures, we need to welcome them and invite them to become part of our community. … And for those who are not yet here, my challenge is: Don’t wait for others to reach out to you. Instead, reach out to them.”
Making the closing remarks, Scott MacEachern, vice chancellor of academic affairs, reflected on the Chinese people’s determined response to Covid-19, as well as how the pandemic highlights the complex challenges facing the global community.
“Covid-19 is not merely a biological phenomenon,” he said. “It engages with questions of public health, environmental policy, climate change, transportation infrastructure, international relations. It illustrates the necessity of social solidarity and good governance, both within and between societies around the world. It shows the power and importance of mathematical models, and their limitations. As has been repeatedly said, ‘The virus doesn’t care what you think’ – but how we think about the virus remains vitally important.”
Duke Kunshan’s comprehensive liberal arts education looks across boundaries between disciplines to see the common themes in both intellectual and real-world questions, MacEachern added, “and it is precisely this kind of approach that is essential to dealing with issues like Covid-19.”