By Lei Qi and Keith Lawrence
Like many of his classmates at Duke Kunshan University, first-year student Alberto Najarro struggles learning the Chinese language. After spending an average of two hours each day on his studies, he can now write short essays in Chinese.
But these challenges pale in comparison to what Najarro experienced growing up in El Salvador, one of the most dangerous countries in Central America.
On Najarro’s eighth birthday, his grandmother and mother were robbed by gangsters when driving to a store to buy drinks for his birthday party.
"They took away the car, mobile phones and all valuable stuff. Grandma and mom were left midway on the highway and only with the help of passers-by were they able to report to the police and then go home,” Najarro recalled. “I kept asking dad where mom and grandma had gone. My dad had already received the call, but he pretended nothing went wrong and told me all was fine. Maybe he thought it was all too scary for an eight-year-old.”
Najarro himself had a scare during his senior year in high school. To prepare for a math exam, he stayed at his cousin’s house for tutoring until 3 a.m. Soon after leaving for home, two motorcyclists appeared in the alley and drove alongside either side of Najarro’s car.
"The roar of their motorcycles is the most terrible sound I have ever heard in my life. I did not dare to look back. I only felt tears splashing out. They blurred my eyes and I could hardly see the way."
Najarro then stepped on the accelerator and fled inside a Denny's, where he hid in the innermost toilet cabin. He waited for 30 minutes and only went to his car after he felt certain no one was waiting for him.
These experiences have had a lasting impact on Najarro, shaping the way he perceives the world. “I am privileged to receive a good education and to step out exploring a bigger world, while the people back in my country are still living in constant fear with lives being threatened by the gangsters. I feel it’s my responsibility to make a difference,” said Najarro.
His determination to make a difference could be seen in an essay he wrote for an intercontinental essay contest while in high school. It was a first-person essay about being the victim of bullies. In the essay, he noted, “Bystanders are accomplices of bullies. Their indifference encourages the abuser's aggressive behavior and helps to nail the victim to a pillar of shame.”
His essay earned him first prize, with the judges praising him for his strong ability to empathize with others’ sufferings and his moral courage to push for social changes.
"I love El Salvador, where my beloved family and friends live. But there are things that need us to change,” he said.
When looking for a college, Najarro knew he would study abroad. His dream school was Harvard, where he was accepted, but then an e-mail from Duke Kunshan changed everything.
“After reading about Duke Kunshan, I was amazed to find that there was no place more in line with my picture of an ideal university for my undergraduate studies than here. As a student in its inaugural undergraduate class, I will have the opportunity to shape this university and enhance my abilities in building things from ‘zero’ to ‘one’. It’s a unique challenge that Duke Kunshan offers.”
Alberto Najarro at International Cultural Festival at Duke Kunshan
"When I told my family, teachers and friends that I wanted to study in China, they were not surprised,” he added. “They know that I like Chinese culture. But when I said I would be in Duke Kunshan’s inaugural class if admitted, some became worried. ‘Aren’t you already admitted to Harvard?’ ‘To be their guinea pigs, are you sure?’ ‘Where on earth did you hear about this college?’”
Najarro spent a lot of time thinking about his college choice.
"Duke Kunshan can give me the sense of participation in building the ideal university with my own hands, making it possible for my stupid idealism to continue to take root. No other universities can challenge me that way.”
After three months on campus, Najarro said he loves everything about Duke Kunshan – the classes, the housing, the entertainment, the food. He has shared his advice for studying and living in China as a foreigner in his "International Student's Survival Guide", which includes such tips as don’t let people know right away that you are learning Chinese. He said when he talks with classmates in Chinese, he always purses his lips, frowns slightly and appears to listen intently "so people will be more patient and accommodating.”
As for shopping, his advice is, "Don't go to the malls unless you have a lot of money. You can buy everything here online at a much cheaper price.”
"Of course, the most important advice is to be respectful and open-minded when talking to people with divergent background, and not let ignorance slip into prejudice,” he said.
Duke Kunshan’s 259 inaugural undergraduate students come from 27 countries, and that can occasionally lead to misunderstandings.
For instance, Najarro loves to make friends and always takes the initiative to introduce himself to a new face. But at times he felt his warmness was not being reciprocated. He then talked to several friends about this and was surprised to learn that "they believe people like me who has made a lot of friends do not really need a close friend.”
“I called my best friend from high school, and she told me that not all the people could understand our natural warmth, and they might even mistake that for ingenuity. ‘Don’t change yourself for others. There will be someone who do appreciate the real you.’ Her words comforted me a lot.”
Najarro’s families also gave him full support. “I am very thankful to my families who always trust me, respect any choice I make and back me up all the time. Their support allows me to be the real me,” said him.
Najarro now works part-time in Duke Kunshan’s library and Student Affairs Office, and has joined the Global Health Research Center as a student researcher, getting to know a group of friends who want to contribute more to the university. They are planning to set up a student think-tank, hoping to provide suggestions from a student’s perspective to further develop Duke Kunshan.
Najarro has experienced a lot in his young life, including his encounters with gangsters and overcoming a severe illness in high school that took a long time to successfully diagnose and treat. Najarro recalled, "At that time, when I opened my eyes, I could always see my beloved people around me. I felt wrapped in love. Love gives me courage. Nothing but death is a big deal.
“There are bound to be some ups and downs,” he added. “Otherwise life at Duke Kunshan will be too perfect to be true.”