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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Graduate Tops U.S. Academy

KINGS POINT, New York -- Minutes after the hats of 187 graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy had sailed into the air here, Grigory Kornilov, was trying to cope with his 15 minutes of fame.

"I didn't try to be the best," said Kornilov, the first foreign student to deliver a valedictory address at a U.S. service academy. "It just ended up that way."

Intentional or not, Kornilov, a tall, thin 22-year-old from the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, Southern Russia, made history Monday at the 60th commencement of the academy, which trains men and women as merchant marine and Naval Reserve officers.

"I was always trying to do my best job," Kornilov explained as his girlfriend, Svetlana Arkhipova, 22, who flew from Russia for the ceremony, snapped away with a camera. He was part of the second group of Russians to graduate from the Kings Point academy, last year's four Russian nationals being the first to attend and graduate any federal academy.

Kornilov's tuition, and that of the other two Russian students in the class, was paid by the Russian shipping company Novoship. Both his parents work for the company, which primarily ships oil, and it is for Novoship that Kornilov will work when he returns home, he said.

Just two places down in class ranking from Kornilov and the top student to earn a marine engineering services license was another foreign student, 22-year-old Karinna Melissa Vernaza Pena of Panama, who, like Kornilov, had been exposed to ships from an early age.

In addition to earning licenses in various aspects of the marine transportation industry, all graduates received a bachelor of sciences degree.

Kornilov and Pena were among 10 foreign students in the class -- three Russian, five Panamanian and two Filipino.

Tuition for the Filipino students is paid by the U.S. government in a agreement that dates back to World War II, said school spokesman Martin Skrocki. Panamanian students also receive free schooling courtesy of the U.S. government as part of the agreement that will turn the Panama Canal over to Panama at the turn of the century. Russian and other foreign students are sponsored by maritime concerns or other sponsors, he said.

But for Pena, 22, it was the proximity of the Panama Canal that got her thinking about a career in shipping and landed her at the academy.

"I guess it wasn't total culture shock," she said of her arrival on the U.S. campus four years ago. "We get a lot of American culture down there because of the canal." She will soon begin working as an assistant engineer in a Panamanian shipyard.