Blueprint for a Diplomat
By Sara Sobota
Photos courtesy of Hannah Hamelman
Armed with insatiable curiosity, intrinsic determination, and a genuine interest in people, Hannah Hamelman (’18) is going places — both literally and figuratively. From Kazakhstan and Georgia to Tajikistan, Hamelman’s knowledge of world culture exceeds many people’s knowledge of simple geography. Her academic curriculum, as a history major with minors in political science and languages and intercultural studies, included a study abroad semester, international academic conferences, global studies workshops, and a U.S. State Department Critical Languages Scholarship. Having claimed numerous “firsts” for both departments and the University, Hamelman is a model for both intercultural understanding and student accomplishment.
With a keen interest in central Asia and Russian language and culture, Hamelman finds internal reward in demystifying vastly different cultures.
“Despite the elements of the unknown within these cultures that I am still trying to understand, that effort of trying to understand it fills me with pure happiness, with joy,” said Hamelman.
Through her classes and interactions with professors, Hamelman’s cultural interests began in Europe and then spread to India, east Asia, and finally Russia. Her first international excursion was a trip to London with the Arts and Humanities Global Exchange Program (AHGEP), headed by Tripthi Pillai, associate professor in the Department of English. She spent the 2018 spring semester abroad in Almaty, Kazakhstan, as the first CCU student to travel to the country and the first American student to participate in the program. That summer, Hamelman participated in an academic conference at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and the following year, she became the first CCU student to earn the prestigious U.S. Department of State Critical Languages Scholarship (CLS), which brought her back to Tbilisi to study Russian for 10 weeks in Summer 2019. Hamelman is currently in Tajikistan, where she teaches English, and plans to return to the United States for graduate school in Fall 2020.
While her international resume is both impressive and adventurous, Hamelman admits to difficult moments. She’s had her share of uncomfortable encounters being the only English speaker in the vicinity — and being cold, hungry, or frustrated by an inability to communicate — yet she’s dissolved cultural barriers through a combination of language acquisition and focused attention to the community and people who surround her.
Headed to Kazakhstan for a semester abroad, Hamelman traveled alone and arrived in the middle of the night, having had just one semester of Russian.
“It was scary,” she admits. “I was the only American there. At some points, I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? Maybe I should just give up and go home and let the next person try this.’ But it got better, and I adjusted. I find that every instance where I’m being brought to something new, whether it’s going to a new town with a friend, trying new food, or going to different gatherings, I know that familiar people will make me feel largely comfortable, and that outweighs the uncomfortable.” Now Hamelman counts her Kazakhstan roommates, all from Tajikistan, as close friends.
Mariam Dekanozishvili, assistant professor in the Department of Politics, has taught and advised Hamelman both in the classroom and abroad, having traveled with Hamelman to a scholarly conference in Tbilisi. In both contexts, Dekanozishvilli has been impressed with the young woman’s conviction as well as her nuanced perception regarding culture.
“Hannah is a very hard-working student but also very enthusiastic about what she’s doing,” said Dekanozishvilli. “She’s determined and motivated — a person who always wants to learn and to break stereotypes. In Georgia, I was surprised by how well she understood cultural differences and the way she approached people. She’s very sensitive to cultural distinctions and knows how to deal with people; that’s an important quality for someone who travels abroad.”
Anna Oldfield, professor of English who mentored Hamelman leading up to her study abroad in Kazakhstan, admires the student’s grit in becoming the program’s first American student.
“Her courage and determination were incredible,” said Oldfield. “She landed in a place where they weren’t quite sure what to do with her. They were used to foreign students coming from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who already knew Russian. It sounds like it could have been a scary situation, but she did absolutely amazing. She made friends and took a large role in the university.”
The Critical Languages Scholarship (CLS) was a privilege and a challenge of a different sort. While Hamelman was among other students, the Russian immersion factor was daunting.
“The program was very difficult,” said Hamelman. “We had to speak Russian 24/7, and so the language part was very intensive and very scary. But over time, after the first month, we all became attached to the country, to the language, to the classes, to our teachers, to our host families; we became comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
A native of La Paz, Bolivia, who grew up in Conway, S.C., Hamelman said her global interests are rooted in her upbringing and were nurtured by CCU classes and faculty members.
“My father [Steve Hamelman, professor in CCU’s Department of English] was very good at introducing me to varieties of music, literature, religions, and foods, so I had that great influence as a child to introduce me to learning about other cultures around the world,” Hamelman said.
She credits Pillai, Oldfield, Dekanozishvilli, and Chris Gunn, associate professor in the Department of Politics, as mentors in her scholarly journey.
“They have been what is pulling me, propelling me to do things I want to do,” said Hamelman.
With her eye on a diplomatic position in U.S.-Russian relations, Hamelman’s journey, along with the cultures and people she meets along the way, will be full of discovery and adventure.