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Funding: Graduate School fellowships for 2023-24; apply by Nov. 11 | Professional Development Grant; apply by Oct. 15

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New Chinese Students Get A Helping Hand

When Jun Wang left China to come to Duke in 2011, the pharmacology Ph.D. student had an apartment lined up in Durham, but she didn’t have a single piece of furniture.

It’s the kind of logistical issues that international students often face when they first arrive on campus. In Wang’s case, though, help was waiting for her when she stepped off the plane at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

For at least the past eight years, the Duke Chinese Student and Scholar Association (DCSSA) has been offering services to help new graduate and undergraduate students from China settle in at Duke. Those services begin well before the students step on a plane to Durham and extend well beyond the welcome at the airport. (Resources at Duke for international graduate students)

“For new students, when they first get here, they know nothing about the area and they don’t have anything,” says Wang, who now oversees those services as president of the DCSSA. “For instance, I didn’t have any furniture, just an empty apartment. So the student who picked me up lent me an air mattress so I didn’t have to sleep on the floor.

“Our new-student service is always our priority. After the students get here and start to connect with more people, they become more and more independent, but when they first come here, they really need our help.”

This year, the DCSSA is getting some help from The Graduate School. Paula McClain, dean of the school, heard about the organization’s new-student services in passing during a conversation with Wang and offered to cover the cost. The volunteers also got Graduate School T-shirts to make it easier for new students to spot them at the airport.

“It was kind of a surprise, and I really appreciate it,” Wang says of the support from The Graduate School.

“Whatever They Need”

Each year, the DCSSA reaches out to incoming Chinese students via e-mail and QQ, a popular instant-messaging service in China. After mid-April, when most new graduate students have accepted admission, the organization holds question-and-answer sessions on topics such as housing, visas, registration, and health insurance.

The new students are also offered the option to sign up for airport pickup. Everyone who signs up is assigned a DCSSA volunteer, who serves as a guide for the new student during the first couple weeks. This year, the DCSSA has about 80 volunteers taking care of approximately 350 new students.

“The volunteers pick up the new students at the airport and drive them to buy groceries, open a bank account, get a cell phone, whatever they need,” Wang says. “It’s very helpful for the students.”

The DCSSA also arranges temporary housing for new students who need it. Wang says that new Chinese students typically arrive in the first two weeks of August, but some cannot move into an apartment until later in the month. In other cases, a student might arrive too late in the day to get to the leasing office.

“I had a new student this year who said he was going to sleep in the airport overnight and go to the leasing office the next day,” Wang says. “I said, ‘No, we can find you a place to stay. You can stay with one of our volunteers, and if they don’t have room, they can always find room for you with one of their friends.’ ”

Returning the Favor

Wang says the services are reassuring for the students and their families in China, especially if the students are going abroad by themselves for the first time.

“It means a lot to them psychologically,” she says. “They feel they are part of the community, that there is someone here to help them.”

While the DCSSA’s new-student services only span the first couple weeks of a student’s time in Durham, Wang says the newcomers often become friends with the volunteers. Also, those who benefitted from the services are eager to return the favor.

“We always tell them that if you feel grateful right now, please be nice and helpful to the newcomers later,” Wang says. “That's why it’s not difficult for us to recruit enough volunteers every year.

“For our volunteers, doing these things often seems like just lifting a finger. It’s not a big thing to you, but it’s a really big thing for the newcomers.”

Photo: DCSSA volunteer Jianling Zhong, a computational biology and bioinformatics PhD student, helps an incoming graduate student from China with her luggage at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Resources for Incoming International Graduate Students

New international graduate students can find a number of resources to help them settle in at Duke, including the following:

— Sources: International House, Joint Youth Organization of the Indians at Duke, Duke Singapore Students Association