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Former U.S. sailor earns law degree from Ryukyu University

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-04-16

Todd Cunningham is proof positive that persistence and desire can take you anywhere.

Todd is one of only a few Americans to have graduated from Ryukyu University's graduate program as a non-scholarship student, and in doing so earned himself a Masters Degree in Law this past March. Although there are many foreign students who attend and complete their education at the university, very few have walked through the doors as a regularly enrolled student. Besides having to clear a considerable amount of bureaucracy to enter Okinawa's largest university, the 33-year-old native of Syracuse, New York also had to prepare himself for the University's difficult entrance exam - which he had to complete in Japanese.

Cunningham first arrived in Okinawa as a young sailor for the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps in 1991. During his four-year stay on the island he worked closely with Japanese engineers and architects on many projects, providing him with an insight and knowledge about many of Japan's laws concerning the environment.

"On construction projects I had to learn about red soil erosion, soil containment, and about the eco-system of Okinawa. We also managed safe storage of hazardous waste," recalled Cunningham.

Wanting to perform his job at a higher level, Cunningham decided to learn Japanese at the University of Maryland Okinawa. "I wanted to understand the unique problems of being in Okinawa and the unique problems of law in Japan," he continued. "It bothered me to always need a translator, so I started studying Japanese."

After completing his service in the U.S. Military, Cunningham decided to attend graduate school. Although at first he had no intention on staying in Japan, he was soon lured to the prospect of entering Ryukyu University's law program. "I had some Japanese friends who were in law school at Ryukyu University and they introduced me to a few professors. The professors told me I should first apply as a research student," explained Cunningham. In 1995 he followed their advice, and began taking Japanese classes and a few undergraduate courses to prepare himself for the entrance exam.

Later that same year, Cunningham managed to pass the exam, enabling him to study law at the university as a matriculated student. He completed the entire exam in Japanese "kanji." His accomplishment is even more impressive when one considers that many Japanese students fail the exam.

He continued to pursue his interest in Japanese environmental law, and wrote a research report on environmental policy - written entirely in Japanese. Cunningham's efforts to master the language and desire to study earned him a seat at the university's graduation ceremony last March.

Life as a student at a Japanese university was not always easy for Cunningham. Besides the many cultural differences he faced, there was always the constant language problem. "Being a foreign student makes everything become difficult," he said. "There is much bureaucracy. At certain times it really tested my will, but overall it was a great experience, especially when I consider the friends that I have made."

Despite the many hours of study needed to graduate, Cunningham also found time to learn martial arts, volunteer as a Cub Scout leader, and help many other charity organizations on the island.

"Living in America I had a very narrow way of thinking. Even when I was here with the Military I did not understand many of the cultural differences, and I had this image that Americans were not welcome, but I actually found that it was the opposite. Everyone here treated me as an individual," said Cunningham about his most valuable learning experience.

Cunningham is planning on returning to the United States, where he hopes to continue his education at George Washington University. Eventually, his goal is to work for the U.S. State Department.

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