After spending most of their lives in California, Chris and Laura Hamilton relocated to Normal in 2009. While they embraced the change, that enthusiasm did not extend to their two teenage sons, CJ and John Ryan Hamilton—at least, not at first.
“They initially hated the concept of moving to Illinois, particularly our oldest, CJ,” said Chris Hamilton. “They wanted nothing to do with University High School, either.”
In a sit-down with (former principal) Jeff Hill, Chris Hamilton warned the administrator that CJ Hamilton’s application essay to U-High would be overwhelmingly negative.
Hill’s response? “Maybe U-High is exactly what he needs.”
Those words proved prophetic. Both Hamiltons were selected to attend—and would graduate from—U-High. John Ryan began as a freshman and CJ transferred in as a junior.
Now nine years removed from that trying summer, the Hamiltons are so grateful for the positive impact the school had on their family that they decided to give back in a big way. They have established two separate scholarships in their sons’ names, the John Ryan Hamilton-Hamada Family Scholarship and the CJ Hamilton-Hamada Family Scholarship.
The scholarships also honor Laura Hamilton’s parents, who emphasized the importance of earning a post-secondary degree. They also provided funds in their wills for the family to get the scholarships started.
“When I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Laura’s father made me promise to make sure she had the time and the support to finish her own bachelor’s degree,” Chris Hamilton said. “She did, and it served as a great example for our kids.”
Pioneers for life
Not only did the younger Hamiltons embrace U-High, but both went on to attend in-state colleges, with CJ running track and earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Illinois State University. He was also part of a four-man team that holds the University’s record for the 4X400 relay.
“What I think saved our oldest was track and field and Coach Hampton,” Laura Hamilton said. “Hampton ran for ISU and he really encouraged that path. He also helped CJ to get a scholarship of his own.”
CJ is also quick to credit the support he received during his junior and senior years.
“I had a lot of great coaches and mentors at U-High,” he said. “Coach Hampton taught me not only how to be a great athlete, but a better and more driven person. He inspired me to treat every aspect of my life with the same enthusiasm as running.”
The Hamiltons also appreciated that their kids’ perspectives were highly valued at U-High, too. Coming from a middle school in California where 60 percent of the students were from underrepresented groups, they brought a new understanding of diversity to their classmates. This was particularly true for CJ Hamilton, who takes after his mother (who is part Japanese) in appearance. He never shied away from engaging white students on diversity-related topics in the classroom.
“Everyone at U-High was amazing in that they really allowed those conversations to happen, and something good seemed to come out of it each time.” Laura Hamilton said. “CJ’s teachers would seek us out and say ‘Your son has brought a great, fresh perspective to our school.’ It was so great to hear that.”
U-High also helped to put the Hamiltons on track to embrace their intellectual potentials. While John Ryan Hamilton excelled at math and computer science in California, his U-High teachers and the school’s emphasis on researching career interests led him to discover his passion for electrical engineering. After earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois this past May, he was immediately hired by Boeing in St. Louis.
CJ Hamiltonwas likewise hired immediately after leaving Illinois State. He is in his first year as a social worker and counselor for Fieldcrest Middle School in Wenona.
Outside the classroom, the Hamilton family was inspired by the U-High community’s inspiring support of all students.
“In the area of California where we lived, if you had a kid in a play, most parents would leave after they delivered their lines,” Laura Hamilton said.
Chris Hamilton adds that on a good day, 10-12 parents would show up for cross country meets.
“But at U-High, the student-athletes’ parents would hold the school flag, and there would be 50-60 people supporting seven competitors,” he said.
They found a similar level of support for John Ryan Hamilton, who was part of the high school’s band.
“Being new to the area, the U-High community became so important for all of us,” Laura Hamilton said.
Chris and Laura Hamilton said that the reason they are choosing to support U-High stems from the faculty and staff’s commitment to students and their futures.
“We still love California, but the schools did not emphasize college readiness. We talked to our kids about college constantly. But let’s face it, parents’ opinions don’t always rule the day,” Chris Hamilton said. “U-High reinforced everything we were saying, and all of John Ryan and CJ’s friends shared the same goal.”
The initial idea for the scholarship came to Laura Hamilton in 2014 during John Ryan’s senior year at U-High. The motivation was to contribute to the University Laboratory School community in perpetuity.
“We wanted to give back to the amazing system of Metcalf and U-High and to help others recognize that this type of support is what helps to make sure the schools will continue to be a part of Bloomington-Normal,” she said. “We encourage others who have been positively impacted by these schools to give back and to cherish them.”
Having just put two kids through college with the help of scholarships and an assistantship, the importance of external financial support was hugely important for the Hamiltons.
“You can’t assume that college is being taken care of,” Chris Hamilton said. “College debt is a real problem in our society. Something as small as $1000 can be meaningful.”
Giving made easy
“When we went online to research how people do this, it was like a black hole of information,” Chris Hamilton said. “But then we reached out to the University and got in contact with Wilma Bates, and the process got very easy.”
Outside resources also helped the Hamiltons to fund the scholarships. In addition to the seed money they received from Laura Hamilton’s parents, the Hamiltons’ employer matches yearly giving to Universities up to a certain amount.
The two scholarships will begin being offered in 2020. For the one in CJ Hamilton’s name, preference will be given to students transferring into U-High, while the John Ryan Hamilton scholarship will be focused on students who share his interest in math and science.
“John Ryan and particularly CJ were excited when we told them we were planning on establishing these funds,” Laura Hamilton said. “We think one day they’ll want to contribute to and maintain them, themselves. That would truly bring this full-circle.”