Ship Shape

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After service in the Navy, Ryan Sylvester ’11 is equally comfortable at sea or on land.

In his 2L year at Fordham Law, Ryan Sylvester found himself far from the School’s Manhattan campus—and even farther from his home state of Minnesota. As a student in the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic led by Professor Chi Mgbako, he had traveled to Sierra Leone in western Africa to help local communities address the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). The clinic team partnered with the Centre for Safe Motherhood Youth and Child Outreach, a leading anti-FGM nongovernmental organization in Sierra Leone.

Sylvester says his legal career—now distinguished by military service and even more world travel—was shaped by this type of experience, and the Leitner Center’s human rights–focused mission is precisely the reason he chose to attend Fordham Law.

Just a few months after his clinical experience in Sierra Leone, Sylvester flew to Egypt for a semester at the American University in Cairo with a grant from the David L. Boren – National Security Education Program Fellowship, an initiative that allows graduate students who want to work in national security to study in strategic countries critical to U.S. interests. While there, he also worked as a legal intern for the Resettlement Legal Aid Project, where he assisted Somali and Sudanese refugees in preparing applications for resettlement under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees program. He also assisted Iraqi refugees who had supported the U.S. coalition during Operation Iraqi Freedom with resettlement applications under a United States–sponsored resettlement program.

“This practical experience in Egypt would have passed me by if not for the influence and assistance of Toni Jaeger-Fine,” says Sylvester of the Law School’s assistant dean for international and non-JD programs. “She met with me for weekly video conferences so that the internship experience was quite seamless.”

Sylvester obtained his bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1998 and then stayed on at the school to earn a master’s in educational leadership. He credits Moorhead Professor Andrew Conteh, PhD, a Sierra Leone native and retired diplomat, for sparking his interest in foreign affairs and international law. In 2007, Sylvester was hired as a delegate intern to the Sierra Leone Mission to the United Nations, where he attended meetings of the General Assembly and the International Criminal Court, among other groups. He obtained a second master’s—in global affairs—from New York University, where he met his wife, Kristen. The following year he started his legal studies at Rutgers School of Law – Newark before transferring to Fordham Law.

During law school, Sylvester assisted in researching the law of armed conflict for scholarly articles as well as the textbook The Law of Armed Conflict: An Operational Approach for Professor Eric Jensen, now at BYU Law. Jensen’s military background (a judge advocate in the U.S. Army who obtained his LLM from the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School) helped inspire Sylvester’s own career as a judge advocate: He has served in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps since his graduation from Fordham Law in 2011.

“This was an ideal career,” Sylvester says. “It was the one thing I wanted to do while I was in law school. The JAG Corps looks for people with worldwide deployability. The more you can demonstrate this willingness to serve anywhere in the world, the more attractive you become as a candidate. Fordham gave me every opportunity to make the most of my potential.”

This past year, Sylvester spent 14 months as a “lawyer at sea” aboard USS Emory S. Land, a submarine support ship, or tender. The tour took him from Portland, Oregon, to Hawaii, with stops in Guam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

“There are limited opportunities for judge advocates to go to sea,” Sylvester says. His role was to advise the commanding officer (CO) about any legal issues that might arise.

“My main focus on the ship was discipline,” Sylvester explains. “Most people think of courts-martial when they think of military justice, but there’s a legal process called ‘nonjudicial punishment,’ or ‘captain’s mast,’ where sailors are brought before the CO for less serious offenses. Witnesses and other evidence are presented to the CO, who acts as the judge and, when necessary, awards punishment.” Sylvester acted as adviser to the CO to ensure that all legal standards were met during his deployment. As a secondary responsibility, Sylvester provided non-criminal legal assistance to the sailors themselves.

“Many of these servicemembers have personal, civil legal issues back home,” he says. “I would advise them of their options and rights, such as those outlined in the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which, among other things, entitles them to cancel their leases and terminate cell phone contracts.”

A judge advocate functions not only as a lawyer but also a staff corps officer in the U.S. Navy. While serving at sea, Sylvester was part of the wardroom of officers who led the crew and also served as a department head over legal and public affairs; in this role he supervised seven enlisted sailors in the ratings of Legalman and Mass Communication Specialist.

“I learned so much more about the Navy, its mission, and its people from the experience of living and working on the ship for over a year,” he says.

Prior to his position on the ship, Sylvester spent a couple of months working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense policy department, which focused on ocean policy. There he gained a deeper understanding of the law of the sea, the authorities governing navigation, and current issues and U.S. policy toward competing claims in the South China Sea.

“A key tenet of the U.S. Navy is to ‘operate forward,’ meaning to have our assets located in key areas, ready to respond,” he said. “Being forward deployed on a ship gave me a sense of fulfillment of contributing to the mission as well as firsthand exposure to legal issues I studied in law school and also during my time in ocean policy.”

Sylvester is eager to continually operate forward, with other overseas assignments in the future. For now, his next assignment is with the National Security Agency in the D.C. area. In March, he attended the Fordham Law Alumni Association’s D.C. chapter reception, and he is excited to participate in other alumni events in the area.

“So many experiences at Fordham put me in the direction I wanted to go,” says Sylvester. “All my professors went above and beyond to help me get to this stage of my career.”

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