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Taking it one day at a time, grad works for immigration reform

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Adam Kuranishi

Adam Kuranishi: "For the next year — or maybe the next 10 years or perhaps a lifetime — I may stay focused on immigration reform.”

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

Like many new graduates, Adam Kuranishi's career path is an uncharted open road. But unlike many others, that prospect excites him.

Kuranishi, who graduates Sunday with a bachelor's degree in political science magna cum laude, is this year's winner of the Donald and Leah Riddle Prize. Named for the former UIC chancellor and his wife, the award is presented annually to an outstanding senior based on academic excellence and leadership.

A student in the Honors College and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he speaks fluent Arabic. He has served as an advocate on behalf of undocumented immigrants and Chicago's indigent.

"One thing I've learned from my friends who are undocumented, who can't apply for jobs or get financial aid for school, is to think for the moment, ground myself for the moment, think year to year," he says.

"I've consciously recognized my involvement in the immigration rights movement and also my involvement in the community.  So for the next year — or maybe the next 10 years or perhaps a lifetime — I may stay focused on immigration reform."

A native of Chicago's Northwest Side Avondale neighborhood, Kuranishi describes himself as Japanese American — his father, Van, is fourth-generation Japanese, his mother Polish-Irish.

As captain of his high school debate team, he began exploring ethnic heritage — both his own and others' — while preparing to advocate for Arabs and Arab Americans detained at Guantanamo Bay.

"My grandparents were in Japanese American internment camps during World War II. That's where they met," he says. Knowing that brought new meaning to preparation for his debate. 

"There was this connection. I could identify with it."

Kuranishi subsequently began learning Arabic, winning a U.S. State Department Critical Languages Scholarship to study the language last summer in Tangiers, Morocco, then spending fall semester at the University of Jordan in Amman.

"I traveled to Syria, the West Bank, and got some great perspective on Middle East issues, the countries, cultures and people," he says. 

Taxi drivers, he says, assumed he was Japanese and didn't speak English, so they only spoke Arabic to him.

"For someone doing African American studies (his declared minor), who does activist work in immigration and is studying Arabic, it was surreal to be identified as Asian or Japanese," he says.

"We interacted in Arabic, and my language skills improved to where I'm at advanced level."

Kuranishi credits the flexibility of the Honors College experience for allowing him to explore academic interests while maintaining a high level of social activism.

"A lot of professors here understand and are aware of what's going on in the lives and the experiences of urban youth. Professors can be very compassionate and understanding when I say, 'I can't attend class, I have a friend on the verge of deportation and I have to be at a court hearing, but I'll make up any class work.'"

Kuranishi is an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Justice League, work he plans to continue after graduation.

He is considering graduate school — perhaps a Ph.D. in African American studies, urban sociology or Middle East studies. Law school is another option. Kuranishi is weighing them all but, for the moment, committing to none.

"I'm grateful for all the rich experiences and travel I've had, and know that next year I'm dedicated to immigration reform," he says. "Who knows after that?"


Previous Riddle Prize winners

Anand Sandesara: superachiever combines studies, service and science

Oisin Kenny: outstanding in any language, but he speaks six

Liat Shetret: overcoming a world of challenges

Neelima Vidula: combining research, medicine to make a difference

Ana Petrovic: a belief in justice for all

Jennifer Larson: coping with Greek, Latin, math and teenagers

Rena Patel: a long list of honors, big plans for the future

Jane Jih: recognizing the power of education

Vandana Khungar: one-of-a-kind student set goals early

Rajeev Garg: challenge is a way of life

Oveys Mansuri: variety is the spice of life

Elinor Jane So Yu likes challenges

Karoline Hermes: one of the survivors

Brenda Hahn: it's no secret why honors student wins top prize

Rami Sweis finishes his four-year stretch

Deepasriya Raghavan: a Renaissance woman

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