Student duo to celebrate ‘wild ride’ at DKU commencement

Class of 2022 students Honey Huang and Wanying He have been chosen to speak at this year’s Duke Kunshan University commencement ceremony, with both set to energize the highly anticipated event through messages of celebration, reflection and inspiration.

Handpicked to address the 2022 ceremony following a competitive selection process, they have each made their mark on university life, academically as well as by championing student causes and helping to forge DKU culture.

He, Duke Kunshan’s first Schwarzman Scholar, said she was “thrilled” to be given the opportunity to speak at an occasion she saw as just the start of the Class of 2022’s journey together, predicting lifelong ties.

Wanying He

Huang, a tireless presence on campus, revealed she felt honored to play such an important role in a “monumental moment” for the class and university. She added the focus of her speech would be on celebrating students’ experiences, while also acknowledging some of the unprecedented challenges they faced along the way.

“As the first undergraduate class of DKU, we came into this institution as pioneers,” Huang said.

“We built a lot of things from scratch, lived through major changes, advocated for our needs and wants and we continued to do so despite being geographically far because of the pandemic.”

She added, “COVID-19 did not hinder us from fostering the relationships among ourselves, with faculty, staff and admin.

“Despite all the challenges we faced as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and now seniors, we have achieved so much in life.”

Huang is majoring in media and arts with a track in creative practice. Her focus is on documentary photography, short filmmaking and curatorial works, engaging with topics such as transculturalism, identity and home.

Born and raised in Islamabad, Pakistan, but having family roots in Guangxi, China, her interests include the cultural preservation of Chinese water towns.

Honey Huang

Away from her studies, she made contributing to the development of the DKU community and striving for better student experiences a key goal of her time here.

She has been involved in projects such as the launch of the campus-wide annual Arts and Music Festival and the creation of the Student Arts Advisory Board, which she chairs.

The co-founder of the Women’s, Gender and Diversity Initiative has also worked for several university departments including the Humanities Research Center, Student Media Center, Residence Life and the Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

Huang and He, who will address both the undergraduate and graduate cohorts from the Class of 2022 at the ceremony, were among the members of the first Duke Kunshan undergraduate class who arrived on campus from August 2018.

With the graduation of the 240 or so undergraduates, the commencement ceremony in May brings down the curtain on the pioneering cohort’s four-year bachelor’s degree program.

But data science student He insisted this would not be the end of the story for the trailblazing Class of 2022.

“We’ve been through many special things together,” she said. “Commencement marks our completion of our degree at DKU, but the community, the people in it and our stories, have only started.

“I hope and believe that our ties will remain strong globally in the future and we will be there to witness even more moments of success and happiness for each other.”

Honey Huang (second row, right) says she is sad that her DKU experience is ending

She described her journey through DKU as the “wild ride of an interdisciplinary, intercultural nomad”.

“It feels like going out into the world – meeting wonderful people with diverse backgrounds, trying many different things – and coming back home at the same time. The community is my family.

“I used to say that I was ‘stepping out of my comfort zone’. I think exploring is the most comfortable mode for me now.”

In a first for the university, He was at the end of last year accepted as a Schwarzman Scholar, one of the world’s most selective fellowship awards.

She also counts helping to secure positive change for students and foster intercultural ways of working among her successes.

He, who is from Liuyang city in the Chinese province of Hunan, was a founder of BRIDGE, a student-led organization working closely with the university leadership. Among its achievements, the group instigated a change in the teaching of the Chinese language to focus more on practical learning rather than written elements.

The data science student also served as co-facilitator of the Intercultural Spotlight Series, designed to normalize intercultural modes of campus working, and as co-president of the Konnect Students Across Campuses (KSAC), a Duke-DKU network committed to integrating students across both sites.

The Class of 2022 had the opportunity to shape the undergraduate experience at DKU, He said, and “much of the animated DKU culture is our legacy”.

Wanying He (third from right) with fellow members of student-led organization BRIDGE

The online 2022 commencement ceremony starts at 8:30 a.m. (Beijing time) on May 20, coinciding with proceedings at Duke University in North Carolina to accommodate those graduating students who are unable to be in China.

Dean of Undergraduate Studies Marcia France, who oversaw the selection, said the committee received a “strong pool of nominations” that made picking the speakers “incredibly difficult”.

“Any of these students would have done an outstanding job, and I wish we could have selected more than two speakers,” France said.

“We ultimately chose Honey and Wanying to represent their classmates not only because they are so highly respected by their peers, but also because of their inspiring messages and heartfelt delivery.”

Asked about what she was looking forward to most about commencement generally, He said the throwing of mortarboards leapt immediately to mind, as well as addressing the “very people who made the most unforgettable memories with me — our faculty, staff and my dear classmates”.

Huang said she had “mixed feelings” about the event.

“On one hand, I am sad because this is the end for us as undergraduate students. We are to say goodbye to a place where we spent four years, be it in person or online. This is the institution that has greatly impacted our lives.

“On the other hand, I am very excited because this is the moment where we are celebrated and where we mark our last stop at DKU. Every end is a new beginning, and I am ready to start a new chapter of my life.”

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