“My senior thesis changed my life.”
That’s a rare sentiment to describe a project that many a college senior grinds through, then permanently puts away following graduation. But Cheryl Hamilton ’01 says the words without a hint of irony. In her senior year, the international relations major returned to her hometown of Lewiston, Maine, to research how the local community was dealing with the influx of 28 immigrants from the West African country of Togo. She produced a 107-page thesis based on more than 100 interviews with refugees, aid workers, journalists and local officials to explore how the Togo immigrants were resettling in New England and how the local community’s concerns were being addressed.
The work that went into her thesis was both prelude and preparation for what came next. After graduating in 2001, Hamilton returned to Lewiston again, but this time as a case worker to help managed the resettlement of more than 2,000 Somali refugees. The post-9/11 migration of thousands of black Muslims into a Maine mill town composed largely of white Christians proved a culture shock for both the immigrants and the locals, sparked a backlash among many in the community (including the Lewiston mayor) and attracted the attention of the national media.
Hamilton’s performance, her first at Clark, will be held Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 3 p.m. in the Little Center Theatre.
Hamilton’s Lewiston experiences went through another iteration in 2008 when she teamed up with Loyola College theater Professor James Bunzil to create “Checkered Floors,” her one-woman play detailing how the Somali immigration into Maine changed her life.
“Checkered Floors” has drawn raves for the courage and honesty Hamilton employs to recall being at the center of a social and political maelstrom, but also to illuminate how she dealt with a a traumatic event.
In a recent interview, Hamilton noted that the reaction in Lewiston was not unique for a city experiencing a “secondary migration.” Somalian refugees had flocked to Portland, Maine, but because the housing stock was saturated, they relocated to cities like Lewiston that had more vacancies.
At Clark, Hamilton said, she was supported and encouraged every step of the way as she immersed herself in studying Lewiston’s Togo immigration, which then set her up for her later job working with the Somalis. She has since managed two national refugee programs and is the communications director for Refugee Point in Boston.
“My college degree paved my future,” Hamilton said. “If I hadn’t written that paper, I wouldn’t be going what I’m doing now.”
Sociology Professor Shelly Tenenbaum met Hamilton as a first-year student when she took Tenenbaum’s Introduction to Sociology course. She would later be an adviser on Hamilton’s senior thesis.
“Working with Cheryl was memorable,” Tenenbaum said. “I saw her transform before my eyes over several years. She flourished at Clark.”
About two years ago Hamilton wrote Tenenbaum about the possibility of bringing “Checkered Floors” to Clark. Tenenbaum asked theater Professor Gino DiOrio to read the play; he liked it and extended the invitation.
While the subject matter of “Checkered Floors” may sound somber on paper, Hamilton is quick to note that the play is infused with humor and hope as it balances her profoundly personal crisis with the wider experiences of the Somalis in Lewiston. The friendship of one particular Somali man was an “unexpected gift” that helped her see “that I could get up and move forward.”
She’s looking forward to returning to Clark.
“It’s a little surreal,” Hamilton acknowledged. “I can’t believe it’s been ten years already. I’m grateful that they’re having me.”
“Checkered Floors” is sponsored by the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies the Higgins School of Humanities, the Political Science Department, the Theater Arts Program and Women and Gender Studies.