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Professor takes OU to Hong Kong

Two years in Hong Kong have left an indelible mark on Dr.

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Two years in Hong Kong have left an indelible mark on Dr. Eric Cunningham. The Ohio University Southern Campus (OUSC) assistant dean bows almost imperceptibly as he greets visitors and students.

On a table in his office, a bright white and gold pig – signifying Cunningham’s Oriental astrological sign – sparkles with a quiet intensity.

Memories and mementos of his two years as director of the Ohio University programs housed at Hong Kong Baptist University, a public institution located in the heart of this bustling Asian city, offer unspoken testimony to his lifelong fascination with travel.

Before leaving two years ago to direct OU’s Hong Kong classes, Cunningham was no stranger to international travel. He previously had worked extensively throughout Latin America.

OU’s main campus in Athens has had a long relationship with Hong Kong Baptist University, with the first formal link forged in 1985. The school’s courses and degrees are targeted to Hong Kong students, not as courses for Americans who wish to study overseas.

"OU’s programs started as independent study, but then they grew," Cunningham explained. "It became obvious that OU needed a full-time person there to direct the programs."

Today, more than 750 students are enrolled in Ohio University programs in Hong Kong.

Cunningham termed his work in Hong Kong as "a one-man show." While there, he developed schedules, performed admissions and student services work, oversaw transfer of student credits from across the globe and literally designed the overall program.

"I also marketed the university as well as represented Ohio University anywhere and everywhere," he said with a smile. "I also worked with people in the Hong Kong Baptist University’s school of continuing education (through which OU courses were offered).

"Sometimes, it required a great deal of diplomacy. I guess you could say I really was an educational diplomat."

As a child, Cunningham recalled being fascinated by stories of foreign places.

"The spark that was kindled as a child continued to grow, so when the university asked me about Hong Kong, I was very interested," he said. Before leaving for Hong Kong, Cunningham had served for a number of years as assistant dean at the Ironton campus. He was considered on loan during his two years in Hong Kong.

The density of the population in Hong Kong – 6.5 million people in a 20-mile-square radius – created an immediate impression on Cunningham when he arrived there.

"Hong Kong is so very different from the United States," he said. "It is very small, and people live in high rises. I lived on the 24th floor, and my building had 32 floors."

His apartment building was one of 50 or so in a single group – called an "estate" in Hong Kong. That "estate," Cunningham stressed, had more people than all of Lawrence County.

Although Cantonese is the native language of Hong Kong, virtually everyone is fluent in English. Until 1997, Hong Kong was a British colony, so much of the dialect has a distinctly British flavor.

Hong Kong students begin learning English as soon as they begin elementary school, Cunningham said, adding that since colonial status was withdrawn two years ago, "mother tongue" instruction is gradually being phased in.

"Students generally do better when they learn in their own language," he said of the change to Cantonese-based instruction. "However, English still will be taught, but it will be considered a second language. Until now, English was considered a first language, and all schools and universities taught every class in English."

Cunningham described Hong Kong as a "world-class city" that draws internationally acclaimed performers virtually every night of the week. Because the city is a complex amalgam of Eastern and Western cultures, it has a diversity that appeals to virtually everyone.

"I frequently attended these programs," he said, smiling at his interest in the fine arts. "Hong Kong has a resident symphony that was wonderful, and there was a tremendous range of theater programs. Hong Kong is really a cultural mecca."

His geographic location in Hong Kong also gave him the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Asia. Weekends frequently found him in Bangkok, Singapore and other exotic places exploring historic sites and experiencing the unique culture found in each spot.

He said virtually everything in Hong Kong is done by fax for personal and professional dealings.

"It is a very fast-paced lifestyle. Hong Kong people want information immediately," he explained. "That’s why everyone has a fax."

The workforce is extremely task-oriented, Cunningham added. The work week in Hong Kong is six days, and if an individual owns a shop, the work week is seven days.

"There is no such thing as quitting time in Hong Kong," he said. "People work until the job is done."

The climate is equal in latitude to Key West, and although palm trees dot the landscape, there is a definite seasonal shift. Because of Hong Kong’s proximity to the ocean, temperatures above freezing seem much colder because of the dampness and wind.

"My life was enriched and blessed by the experience," he said, "but I wasn’t sorry to come back home. This is where I want to be."

Cunningham praised his colleagues for their support as well as their willingness to incorporate his work into their schedules during his absence.

"It really was a group effort because they had to do my job," he said.

Now, Cunningham must readjust to the more leisurely pace of life in Southern Ohio.

"Hong Kong is a great city with a lot to offer economically and culturally. It truly grows on you and becomes part of your being," he said. "I miss it, but I am glad to be home. There is an adjustment period on both ends. Now, I am readjusting to my life, my culture."

He has been associated with Ohio University since 1974 and has lived in Ohio for the past 25 years.