The truth about life at Duke Kunshan University | Duke Kunshan University

The truth about life at Duke Kunshan University

By Kelley Reardon

I landed back on American soil in December after spending 16 months abroad, mostly at Duke Kunshan University, as a graduate student in the international master of environmental policy (iMEP) program. The program is two years long and involves three semesters at Duke Kunshan in China and one semester at Duke University in the United States.

I was drawn to the iMEP program because of China’s pivotal role in global environmental issues as well as a personal interest in Chinese culture. The idea of living abroad in an international community and experiencing the complexities of environmental issues from a new perspective was a compelling prospect to me.

Duke Kunshan is an incredibly interesting and unique place, as it is one of the first academic Sino-foreign joint ventures and the only one that grants U.S. degrees to graduate students in the environmental field. Since arriving at Duke, I’ve heard a lot of interesting thoughts from the Duke community about their perceptions of DKU. I want to dispel any rumors that people may have heard and shed light on what daily life is really like there. Keep reading to find out the truth about life at DKU from a student perspective.

Kelley Reardon (center right) and fellow students take a stroll round the Duke Kunshan campus with Binbin Li (center left), an assistant professor at the university and a leading expert in the conservation of giant pandas.


No. 1: All the classes are in Chinese – Myth!

All of the classes at DKU are taught in English (except for courses teaching the Chinese language) and all the faculty and students are fluent in English. Therefore, if you don’t know Chinese, you will definitely still be able to comfortably get around campus and understand what is going on. There are occasionally guest speakers who do not know English, but most of the time there are translators available for these situations. Actually, the community at DKU is pretty international – the first undergraduate class, which was inaugurated this year, comprises 175 students from the Chinese mainland, 10 from Taiwan and 81 international students. It’s not uncommon to hear many different languages (other than English and Chinese) in conversation while eating dinner or walking around campus.


No. 2: It’s in rural China – Myth!

DKU is in Kunshan, which likely has a population of 2.6 million, according to the population growth rate recorded in the 2010 census. That’s larger than the population of Houston, Texas, and more than 10 times the size of Durham, North Carolina. Kunshan was named China’s greenest city, so there is a lot of vegetation throughout the landscape. Jiangsu province, where Kunshan is located, is also China’s wealthiest province in terms of per capita gross domestic product.

The DKU campus is in a quieter part of Kunshan, but it’s just a short bus ride from multiple shopping malls, dining areas and natural parks. Students can easily take the high-speed train to the neighboring cities of Suzhou (population around 4.33 million, larger than Los Angeles) and Shanghai (24.18 million, the world’s sixth-largest city) for a day trip. Even if you don’t speak Chinese, it’s relatively easy to get acquainted with the public transportation system, and ordering a taxi using your phone is a very simple process. There are also free bike rentals on the DKU campus, with the bikes made of sustainable bamboo materials.


No. 3: You can buy or do almost anything using your phone – Fact!

China is really advanced in its use of technology in everyday life, and there’s one app called WeChat that you can use for essentially everything. Order a taxi? Use WeChat. Text your friends? WeChat. Order food? WeChat. Want to buy a textbook, shirt, cat, car, or anything your heart desires? WeChat. You get the picture. As a student who is studying all the time, it’s very convenient to have nearly anything you want delivered to your doorstep with a few clicks on your phone.


No. 4: China’s “Great Firewall” stops students using websites like Google, Facebook, Instagram, and more – Myth!

The university has an agreement with the Chinese government that lets the entire campus have access to any website through Duke’s virtual private network (VPN). How do you think I wrote all those research papers and policy memos? Google is a student’s best friend. And there are no restrictions to social media, so you can procrastinate as much as you like by scrolling through your phone or updating your friends at home on all of the cool experiences you’re having abroad.


No. 5: The campus is really small – Fact (for now)!

It’s true that the DKU campus is really small at the moment, which might seem like a downside if you are used to Duke’s expansive student amenities. However, the small size can be a huge convenience, especially if you’re running late for class. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk from any building on campus to another, whether you’re in your dorm, the dining hall, the gym or class.

Duke Kunshan is also the first campus in China where all the buildings have received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificates from the U.S. Green Building Council. The campus design consists of ultra-modern, sleek, white buildings with huge windows that reflect the beautiful waterbodies that cover campus in lieu of grass. DKU is also working on the next phase of campus expansion, which plans to incorporate environmental sustainability into the infrastructure.

I hope you have learned something new that might challenge your perceptions, not only of DKU but also of life in China. If you ever get the chance to visit DKU, I’d highly recommend going. It’s a very interesting and exciting place that is constantly evolving. It’s the kind of place that attracts open-minded global citizens, so if you are lucky enough to go, make sure you take the time to engage with the DKU community. While the campus is innovative and beautiful, it’s the people there that make the DKU experience worthwhile.


Kelley Reardon is a second-year graduate student in the iMEP program. She focuses on conservation, protected areas and human-wildlife conflict. Below, watch the video Reardon made by taking one-second snapshots each day during her first year on the program, which included trips to the U.S., China, Thailand and India.