Islina Shan

Class of 2024
Duke Kunshan University

Haven amidst a global pandemic: Islina's Duke at DKU experience

2020 is truly an unconventional year for every Duke student. As a freshman based in China waiting on a valid visa to travel to the United States, studying “abroad”(from home)at Duke Kunshan seemed like a less-than-ideal way to kickstart my Duke experience. Unexpectedly, what started as a last-resort decision turned out to be a unique first-year experience I would trade for no other.

  • Soccer player posing in a goal
  • Birdwatchers looking up at trees
  • DKU's water pavilion
  • Dancers posing in the mirror
Islina's fall was filled with activity.

My typical days at  Duke Kunshan University (DKU) now seem extraordinary in the age of Zoom and social distancing. The morning sun shines through the academic building and casts a golden glow on my friends and me plowing through coding questions and written papers for our intense 7-week courses. Afternoons are often spent in a more active manner, be it throwing a frisbee, playing basketball, hitting the gym with other Duke students on campus. On Fridays, students exude the ultimate athletic spirit in school soccer tournament matches. Contagious joy spreads across the field in the chilly evening wind as Duke’s team finally ties with one of the strongest teams from DKU. As the night falls, we engage in intellectual guest speaker series,  scream our hearts out in haunted rooms on Halloween, screen the award-winning Chinese movie Farewell, My Concubine, or play rounds of Catan among snacks and laughter. These face-to-face interactions became so rare during the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave us all the more reasons to cherish.

I would also cherish the kindred spirits I met here and the opportunities Duke Kunshan has granted me to pursue interests outside of class. The campus is paradise on Earth for a nature lover and an avid birder. The timeless grandeur of gothic towers blends subtly into the modern architecture that embodies the serenity of a water town, such as the iconic water pavilion. Unfortunately, the vivid reflections of blue skies and green canopies on all-glass facades often bewilder flying birds around campus, inflicting injury and sometimes even death as they bump into the windows. In order to better understand bird collisions and prevent more tragedies, I volunteered in a Bird Collision project running in its second year at Duke and DKU led by Dr. Binbin Li and graduate students from the iMEP program.

  • Common moorhen daddy (right) and his baby (left) on DKU pond
Common moorhen daddy (right) and his baby (left) on DKU pond

Through this project, I met a few peers who are as passionate about birds as I and organized the inaugural Birdwatching 101 workshop on DKU's campus. As participants watched in awe common moorhen families gliding on the pond and scanned canopies with binoculars for Kunshan’s chirpy winter visitors, I felt a great sense of accomplishment and responsibility to propagate serendipity from birdwatching and cultivate awareness for bird conservation, here at Duke Kunshan and later at Duke.

Besides birdwatching, I also had the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and try something in my wildest dreams: street dance! It felt absolutely amazing to sweat all the stress from school-work out in the studio and release my energy through power moves. I would recommend Duke in Duke Kunshan to Duke students who wish to immerse themselves in a beautiful suburban town and a vibrant city in the rapidly developing China. I would also recommend this program to students who would like to re-connect with their Chinese roots or seek further academic and pre-professional opportunities in China.


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