Class of 2023: Finding her feet and focus in China

For Class of 2023 graduate student Iris Parshley, studying global health at Duke Kunshan University and living in China has been the realization of interests fostered since childhood.

From Portland, Oregon in the United States, she was introduced to healthcare at an early age through her mother’s profession as a nurse, and made several trips to China, the country of her birth. Now, armed with a master’s degree, Mandarin Chinese and a clearer focus on what she wants to do, she has plans to pursue a career in global health project management.

“It has been a great experience coming to Duke Kunshan,” she says. “I came to China because of my interest in the country’s language and culture, and being able to live here with the safety net of the university behind me. What I’ve also found is a welcoming academic community, a beautiful campus and research opportunities that have helped me decide on what direction I want my career to take.”

Iris Parshley on a park near the Duke Kunshan University campus

As an infant, Parshley was adopted from China and grew up in the United States with her mother Sherry, a nurse, her father Philip, who worked in the IT industry and her older sister Lois. From an early age she remembers being interested in her mother’s work and the things she brought back with her from the hospital.

“I really enjoyed having a first aid kit and learning how to use that, and my mom had some stethoscopes and stuff like that which I used to play with as a kid, so healthcare was a big part of my life growing up,” she says.

That interest persisted as she moved away from home for the first time, to attend Macalester College in Minnesota, where she majored in global health alongside Chinese language and culture.

She had assumed she would go on from there to join medical school and eventually become a doctor, but with nagging doubts in her mind, she instead took a couple of years out to work as a medical scribe, shadowing doctors at a hospital and taking their notes.

While her interest in healthcare had been growing, so too had her fascination with Chinese culture, fostered in part by her family.

Iris Parshley (front, center) with friends at a Suzhou cuisine restaurant

“My parents took me to China as a kid and I really enjoyed it and thought it was a cool culture that I would like to learn more about, and so I tried to open up those doors as much as possible as I was growing up by finding more cultural activities, more ways to study the language, when the opportunity arose,” she says.

Then, during college in Minnesota she had the chance to study for a semester at Nanjing University, in Nanjing, capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, while living with a host family, which further piqued her interest in the country and its culture.

“I wanted to expand on that experience by coming back and studying again, but also staying longer, trying to navigate this new country as an adult,” she says.

After two years as a medical scribe, Parshley’s future plans began to come into focus. She decided being a doctor was not the right path for her and instead chose to pursue international health. With dreams of living in China still on her mind, she searched for an option that would let her pursue both interests, and accepted a place at Duke Kunshan University.

Iris Parshley (front, center) with DKU classmates on World Diabetes Day

At DKU Parshley says she found an “attractive campus” and a challenging but friendly academic community, where she could improve her Mandarin Chinese as well as her knowledge of global health.

“I was able to make my own learning plan for Chinese,” she says. “I wanted to work on my professional Chinese, so my language coach helped me find articles to read and then we talked about them using formal language.

“I often speak with friends in Chinese casually too, when we have time off and go out to eat,” she adds.

She also discovered the variety of Chinese cuisine, which she says is “one of the best things about being in China, if you are prepared to try new things.”

On the academic side, she has taken full advantage of the research opportunities DKU affords, becoming an assistant to Dr. Qian Long, associate professor of global health, and working on a Bass Connections project looking into hypertension management, headed by Professor of Global Health Lijing Yan. Her role in that has involved surveying Nepalese cardiovascular physicians about their knowledge, attitudes, practices and use of e-health for hypertension management.

The work has given her a clearer idea of what she wants to do after graduation, she says, which is to focus on health project management, preferably in the international arena. Immediately following commencement, she will head to Geneva to take an intensive one-week public policy course with Duke University, before looking for internships in Europe over the summer, and finally returning to the United States to look for a job, either there or overseas.

While Parshley is leaving Duke Kunshan, and China, she still hopes to maintain a connection with the country and culture that has fascinated her since childhood.

“If possible, I’d love to do something related to China, so maybe that means working with Chinese NGOs or NGOs that have offices in China, or projects that are relevant to China. If I could travel between the U.S. and China, that would be wonderful,” she says.

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