The Bright Sounds of Being Together
In a life where everything has come to a halt and a pandemic goes on, it’s hard to find the silver linings. Sometimes it’s only after sifting through the recent past that we realize that even this can have positive outcomes. For Qiyuan Kevin Cheng ’20, COVID-19 has meant many things. The one thing it has not meant is forgetting where he comes from or where he’s going.
No longer will Kevin see the smiling faces of his friends in the quad. Or laugh with them over dinner in the Brodhead Center. Nor will he walk across stage with them this spring, turning his tassel at graduation. All was cut short his senior year. Somehow that’s okay though, to Kevin. He has made peace in this moment by rediscovering who he is against thebackdrop of a giving, inspiring Duke community.
Kevin went to a private high school in Massachusetts, by way of Shanghai, China, where he grew up. His parents hadtalked about sending him to a military prep academy in the States so he could learn discipline and valor along with academics but thankfully it didn’t stick. The thought of military school seemed dreadful to Kevin, seeing himself as not very athletic. Instead, he focused on academics. Kevin liked that in the U.S. a college applicant’s fate didn’t rest on one test score, like the gaokao in China.
Taking a road trip south with his father and some high school friends, Kevin toured several premier college campuses, finally ending his journey in Durham, North Carolina, with Duke at the end of the tour. Instantly, as with many Duke hopefuls, Kevin fell in love with the campus. He immediately felt a sense of calm, comfort and belonging at Duke. It was different from some of the other campuses he visited, which in contrast had intimidated him or felt somehow distant. He applied early decision and was ecstatic to be accepted into Duke.
Kevin’s Duke Experience
Kevin entered Duke as a biology major, pretty certain of it in fact, as he wrote it down on his application.
He loved biology and was eager to begin his studies, but he did not get a seat in its intro class as a first-semester freshman. That’s when the college experience Kevin imagined ended and the Duke experience began.
“I challenged myself to keep an open mind; I tried different things and talked to different people. Over the freshman year, I tried a lot of clubs, organizations and friend groups,” says Kevin.
This brand-new adventure took Kevin well out of his comfort zone. Although people were friendly, it wasn’t easy to open up at first. Everywhere Kevin turned others were already so talented at the new things he was interested in trying. He wasn’t quite sure where or how he could fit in. He ended up rushing a professional fraternity, to see the potential of a career in business.
Networking with strangers and keeping the conversation flowing was a completely novel concept to Kevin. He wasn’t any good at it, but over four years, Kevin got better and better.
But without a clear path to biology, he needed to explore other majors. In high school, Kevin took a computer programming class — and had enjoyed it. So, he joined many of his classmates in CompSci 201: Algorithms and Data Structures, the intro to computer science course, and his life changed forever.
“Programming to me is like building with Lego blocks or playing a game,” says Kevin. “I found it was maybe something I could consider proceeding with, but I wasn’t completely sure.”
He found himself captivated by the teachings of Owen Astrachan M.A.T.’79, M.S.’89, Ph.D.’92, P’21, a Duke-grown professor of the practice of computer science and the associate director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Computer Science. Kevin found professor Astrachan to be a very good lecturer who gave inspiring life lessons in his class. Astrachan shared vivid moments from lawsuit disputes between large tech companies, in which he had served as a witness. He gave Kevin and his fellow classmates an insider perspective on tech, bringing the course material to life in understandable and memorable ways. He made it personal.
Kevin even had the opportunity to have dinner at professor Astrachan’s house through a student organization, learning even more about Astrachan’s past experiences with technology. But Kevin was also suddenly competing with students who had been programming since they were 10. The pressure was real and felt overwhelming at times.
“I was worried if I could compete with them or perform at the same level,” says Kevin.
As the semester progressed, Kevin ended up talking with some upperclassmen who eased his concerns. He learned that it wasn’t so important to have a vast amount of programming experience as much as it was to have passion and curiosity. By sophomore year, Kevin had chosen CompSci as his major.
“It’s funny,” says Kevin, “after four years at Duke I actually haven’t taken a single biology class.”
Giving for Self
“There’s definitely something unique about the Class of 2020 that all of us will remember for a long time,” says Kevin.
Now that everything has changed with the novel coronavirus, Kevin doesn’t take anything for granted. In a weird way all of this has helped him feel more connected. Kevin’s memories of being with friends this year are limited, but he feels that when they are together in the future, their bond will be even stronger.
This summer, Kevin is heading to a software engineering role at Facebook, moving across the country to California from Durham. But seeing some of his graduating friends having to turn to plan B or C for what they will do after graduation, after internships or job offers have been reduced or evaporated, has been eye-opening.
“The lack of a physical togetherness while facing similar hardships and challenges actually increases the common experience we shared. It’s one we will talk about for the rest of our lives,” says Kevin. “Seeing some of their situations now has made me realize that there are very few things in our lives we can take as granted and how lucky I am foreverything I still have.”
No one in Kevin’s family has been hospitalized since the pandemic began. Shanghai has been fairly safe, regarding its number of infections. Kevin’s father Xiaowei Wayne Cheng and mother Li Lily Zhou Cheng P’20 used to run an e-commerce nutrients and health products company in China together. Years later, Xiaowei co-founded a tech investment company based in Silicon Valley. They aren’t officially retired but have moved on from their office jobs to career that provides a bit more freedom. Becoming more involved with investing and philanthropy, his parents have had a lot of flexibility to stay home and still be productive.
Lily, Kevin’s mom, has a particularly timely transformation. After leaving the company she ran with Wayne, she decided that mental wellness was a second career she wanted to pursue. She started down a path that has been both academic and spiritual, studying psychology, psychiatry and Zen Buddhism. Lily took graduate courses at universities in China.
“Recently, my mom has shifted more toward mindfulness and meditation, which has been helpful not only for herself and our family but for all of the people around her,” says Kevin.
During COVID-19, Lily has hosted online lectures for patients, their families, and relatives in Wuhan and other places in China to help those in need find mental peace in a time of difficulty and physical suffering.
“I’m very proud of what my parents have been doing,” says Kevin.
When my family called they had two things to tell me, stay safe. And seek out opportunities to help those around me.
– Qiyuan Kevin Cheng ’20
Coming from a family of givers, Kevin has responded well to this challenge. Though he’s just graduated and has yet to embark on his career, when Kevin saw the three new COVID-19 relief funds launched by Duke this spring, he knew he wanted to help.
Everything was shut down, and like everyone else Kevin stayed home as he figured out how to finish up classes online, but he also acted fast. After seeing more information come out, Kevin donated what he could from his personal pocket to the COVID-19 Area of Greatest Need Fund.
During his time at Duke, Kevin and his parents developed a personal connection with Wendy Kuran, the associate vice president for development at Duke Kunshan University and China. Each semester, Kuran and her econ professor husband hosted a lunch party for students from many countries and programs to build connections with Duke and one another. When she traveled in China, Kuran would also have meals with the parents of Chinese international students, including Kevin’s family. And as the coronavirus situation unfolded in real time, many of these parents connected on WeChat, looking for ways to get involved with Duke.
And back in the summer of 2019, when Valerie Ashby, dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences visited Duke Kunshan University, she had tea with Xiaowei and heard firsthand how proud Kevin’s parents were of his Dukeeducation. The family had sought an opportunity to give to the Duke community for some time, the only thing keeping them from giving was finding the right outlet.
“When my family called they had two things to tell me, stay safe. And seek out opportunities to help those around me,” says Kevin.
His parents also said they wanted to give to Duke’s COVID-19 relief efforts.
“They asked me to donate and were surprised to find out I already had,” says Kevin.
Kevin’s parents responded by giving $15,000 more spread across the COVID-19 funds in addition to his gift.
In all of this, Kevin and his family share a particularly powerful message. Kevin says that you can look at giving as an act of altruism, but it depends on how you view the relationship of people and yourself. If you see yourself as an entity separate from others, then of course by giving you are committing a very selfless and generous act, donating the resources that you have to others. But from another perspective, if you view the community as a whole, and include yourself in thatlarger identity or group of people that you find yourself a part of — if you see everyone interconnected as one — helping others becomes beneficiary to everyone, including yourself. There’s no longer any distinction between others and yourself.
“This experience has strengthened something in me that is much more important than all of the knowledge and professional experience I have gained here,” says Kevin. “Which is to always remember to have compassion and empathy for others around you — to feel what other people feel.”
Advice for Next Year’s Freshmen
For those entering Duke this fall, it can be an exciting and daunting challenge, as Kevin saw during his own freshman year. In terms of advice, Kevin offers this to the lucky students who will one day become his fellow Duke alumni.
In 2019, in the summer of Kevin’s junior year, he watched a documentary about rock music in China. While he always had a strong appreciation for music and it had been a hobby of his for a long time, Kevin’s time was limited and he never had the courage to start anything musically on his own. But when he got to Duke, Kevin told himself that starting a band and performing live on stage would be one of his college goals.
As his senior year inched closer and closer, it began to feel more like a fading dream to Kevin.
But after watching the documentary, Kevin was inspired and determined. He reached out to fellow students to see if anyone would be interested in the idea. Fortunately, Kevin recruited several freshman, a senior and one Ph.D. student to start a rock band alongside him.
In February 2020, Kevin’s band Kirins performed in front of a crowd of 300-400 students at the Lunar New Year Showcase, one of the largest and most popular shows of the year for students.
“Universities are a very different experience for every single field. It’s almost certain that you won’t be able to experience it all,” says Kevin.
“There are so many opportunities and so many groups of people that you may become involved with over the course of four years. At the end of the day, we all share something in common at Duke, which is the pursuit of passion and the need for belonging.”
Kevin adds that there’s no shame in being lonely for certain periods of time. Or in being confused or lost, regarding what to do with yourself at the current moment — or with your future.
Knowing that the people around you will go through that same process, or have gone through that process already, can give you the sense of belonging that you are seeking.
“With that sense of security and togetherness, you are prepared to face any challenges you might encounter,” says Kevin.
After the Lunar New Year performance, Kevin has no regrets. Although the Kirins had more performances lined up that were unfortunately cancelled due to coronavirus-related closures, that one evocative moment on stage in front of hundreds of cheering fans is the pinnacle of Kevin’s passion for everyone around him and everything that Duke taught him to love.