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The DukeEngage Communications team interviewed Hsiao-Mei Ku, Professor of the Practice of Music and violinist with the Ciompi Quartet, the faculty director leading DukeEngage-Zhuhai. This profile is part of a series that aims to share how DukeEngage programs impact community members, partners, and students. Follow us on Instagram for more content like this!

What sparked your idea for a DukeEngage program?

My personal journey has shaped my values and goals for DukeEngage-Zhuhai. It became apparent to me that I can no longer teach my students the way our generation was taught. In this digital age, I have realized that teaching fine arts has become more important than ever. The younger generation is constantly surrounded by an array of digital gadgets and information at their finger-tip. The speed is perhaps attractive—a “winner,” some may say. But, art, on the contrary, encourages the opposite. It takes much more patience to study the invisible, to hear from inside, to digest, to visualize, to develop the ability to open the mind to welcome the challenges and unknowns, to give up the thought of perfection and embrace the criticism, and to create something human. To go beyond what students learned in a classroom setting and create stories that can touch people’s heart. What can be more magical than studying art?

2019 DukeEngage Zhuhai participants and No 9 Middle School students

China has played a prominent role in global affairs—making it all the more important for future global leaders to understand China and its people. While Duke University offers a first-rate education, DukeEngage-Zhuhai takes our students to learn and to build relationships with people who do not share the same culture background, lifestyle, and language. It takes our students to a setting and environment that is real and far from what they have comfortably lived back on Duke’s campus. My program hinges on the development of an art-based educational program partnered with Zhuhai No.9 Middle School in China. Through these activities, students are encouraged to open their eyes to see school as a place to gather tools for a life-long journey, a place where they can expand their boundaries, confront their fears, and have the opportunity to engage novelties.

What do you believe students have taken away from the experience over the years?

The DukeEngage motto is “Challenge Yourself. Change Your World.”

Once I attended a conference centered on leadership. The keynote speaker shared his definition of leadership as “to be able to improvise.” This has resonated with me since then. DukeEngage-Zhuhai students come back to Duke with different perspectives and flexibility that are crucial in dealing with many moments of uncertainties and unexpected changes on site—all which call for leadership, positivity, and creative spontaneity. DukeEngage serves as a laboratory where Duke students can explore possibilities and extend their limits and build multidimensional problem-solving skills on human levels that can’t be replaced by textbooks. They realize the plans that were detailed, sculpted, and viewed as a “strength” beforehand might have turned into a point of weakness. Instead, a willingness to embrace humility and the ability to improvise have become significant qualities to navigate real life. Discovery of the importance of the human connection has carried a much deeper meaning: through this experience, students experiment with ideas and knowledge they have learned and created new insights to reevaluate their own lives and career paths.

DukeEngage student dancing on stage in front of No 9 students

One recent morning—at 6:30 am—I received a text message from a past DukeEngage-Zhuhai participant: “Just wanted to say thank you again for providing this incredible experience for all the past Duke engagers. I am currently interviewing for a urology residency and still talk about my experience in Zhuhai and how much it impacted my career and passion for service!!” This student had no Chinese language nor any cultural background. Yet the fact that he was able to build an incredible bond with his students and host family and still reflects on his experience several years out truly amazed me. That explains why many Duke students email me and claim: “DukeEngage was the best experience of their four years at Duke!”

What benefit does your DukeEngage program offer the community/partners?

Kally Zhao, now a senior at New York University who was a student from Zhuhai No.9 Middle School, has summarized her experience in the following words: “DukeEngage has influenced my life in many unexpected ways. There are countless different ways to describe the experience…I want to focus on one word that I believe summarizes my experience: possibility. It is through interacting and learning from all those individuals from Duke: all the amazing undergraduate students…that I realized what the possibility could be for my own future.”

The word “success” has different meaning to young students with whom Duke students interact. These students have realized there are different paths to success and opportunities can be created then pursued and the test scores alone do not determine one’s future.

What will you miss most about not running a program this summer?

I miss the excitement of being a part of team on the ground with Duke students from morning into early evenings each day and the satisfaction of seeing how our students grow and surface little by little into someone they could have not imagined before. But what I miss the most is the bond I create with each team each summer that has been always special and dear to my heart.

What your advice on how to stay engaged while socially apart?

Art is the solution to lift and heal the human spirit—broken in the hustle of modern life. Art can crack open a window to shed a bit of light on a willing mind. Art can help a person express the inexpressible and connect people in the human level. Art is perhaps more contagious than the coronavirus. So keep doing art and keep art alive!



In January 2019, the DukeEngage-Zhuhai program celebrated its 10-year milestone with a now-annual exchange visit from Zhuhai No.9 School and a standing-room-only alumni reunion. The Zhuhai No.9 students and staff enjoyed a dinner event attended by DukeEngage alumni from 2012 up to 2018, as well as the DukeEngage-Zhuhai 2019 cohort. A total of 75 people crowded happily into the East Campus apartment of program director, Hsiao-Mei Ku.