Class of 2023: Rediscovering old passions and finding new ones

For Class of 2023 data science student Nick Silva Duke Kunshan has been a place to rediscover old passions and find new ones too.

His time at the university reignited an enthusiasm for computing that has become the focus of his career plans, gave him a thirst for travel and adventure, left him with an international network of friends, and developed in him an interest in mental health issues.

“University has changed the scope of my life. I’m not afraid to make bold decisions and pack up my bags and jump to the next place. The last four years have been a dream,” says Silva.

Duke Kunshan Class of 2023 student Nick Silva

From a small town in Iowa, it was a leap of faith when Silva signed up to study at Duke Kunshan, which he says felt, “Just about as far from home as possible.” Leaving the cornfields of Mt. Vernon, with a population under 5,000, for the metropolis of Kunshan, Silva initially intended to major in economics, but those plans changed during his freshman year. Duke Kunshan students do not choose their major until their second year and spend the first taking classes across a broad range of subjects.

Silva first developed an interest in computer programming in his mid-teens, following advice from his sister that he take an introduction to coding class when he started high school, but had since dropped it. That interest was reignited at DKU, when in the spring semester of his first year he signed up for a computer programming course.

During this class I realized how much I like to code and to translate abstract ideas into machine-understandable instructions,” he says.

His interest in coding was fueled further, he says, when he moved to the Duke University campus in his sophomore year and joined the Duke Applied Machine Learning Group.

“I connected with other passionate student developers and I was able to enroll in a wealth of engaging and challenging courses. Through these experiences I developed a passion for computer science, something that I had to nurture and work on throughout my years at DKU,” he says.

Nick Silva (fourth from left) with colleagues at Amazon

Silva threw himself into every coding opportunity he possibly could, and others, including research projects, competitions, clubs and internships. He became leader of the DukeApplied Machine Learning Group, joined Tech for Equity, participated in hackathons, did a fellowship with Major League Hacking, tutored student athletes, interned at Amazon, became an undergraduate teaching assistant, and joined swing dance and basketball clubs.

The university experience gave him “access to rich and engaging research, leadership, and educational opportunities that have progressed my career more than anything else,” he says.

DKU’s interdisciplinary curriculum also gave him the opportunity to explore areas outside of his major, he says, including farming, ancient philosophy, history and Chinese culture. Duke Kunshan promotes and interdisciplinary curriculum that encourages students to learn about and broad range of subjects and how they interconnect with each other.

Nick Silva in China during his Duke Kunshan orientation week

Silva discovered another passion too, one born out of adversity when the COVID-19 pandemic hit during his sophomore year.

“I was looking for a way to connect with my fellow students and build positive relationships during a difficult time,” he says.

He did that by joining the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), working on programs connecting students to mental health resources and building community bonds.

Among his proudest accomplishments at CAPS, he says, was working on a mental health challenge with coworker Zaiying Yang, which saw them run a month-long competition between students challenging them to develop mental health awareness skills. Silva developed a website for the project and worked on the programming to connect students across the world.

Helping students through mental health issues was highly rewarding, and it also brought coworkers together, according to Silva.

“Some of the friends I made working at CAPS are among my closest today,” he says.

Now, with graduation close, Silva has no plans to take it easy. He first hopes to do some travelling in China, making up for time lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then has a job at Amazon headquarters lined up to begin in July, where he will be working on developing new features for the AWS Chatbot platform. AWS Chatbot is an interactive agent that makes it easier to monitor and interact with Amazon services.

Long term, Silva says he would “love to continue to travel, learn, and share my experiences with others.”

“At DKU I’ve built an international network of friends and peers, and I would love to visit every one of them,” he adds.

For those coming to Duke Kunshan, or thinking of applying, Silva has this advice: “College is about more than grades in the classroom. It’s about building connections and finding your space in the world. I don’t think I could have done that without the rich experiences I’ve had at DKU.”

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