UC Berkeley International House enters its 85th year of providing community, refuge

Yinan Su/Staff

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Sitting at the far end of campus on Piedmont Avenue, UC Berkeley’s International House will celebrate its 85th anniversary amid construction projects that have taken place over the years.

Established in the midst of the Great Depression, I-House was designed as a sanctuary for people of all nationalities who could live together in a co-ed environment. Over the years, it’s continued to offer a community to international students.

The creation of I-House was initiated, in part, by Harry Edmonds — who, at the time, worked for the New York YMCA — to provide a refuge for foreign students. Edmonds was inspired by a meeting with a Chinese student in front of a Columbia University library. Upon receiving a casual “good morning” from Edmonds, the student remarked that Edmonds was the first person to speak to him in his three weeks in the United States.

Edmonds later encouraged John D. Rockefeller Jr. to build New York City’s first International House, which opened in 1924, according to a history released by I-House administrators. Soon after, Edmonds scouted Berkeley as a possible second location, leading to the establishment of International House Berkeley in 1930.

According to Maliha Bhola, an I-House resident and program assistant, the spirit of I-House remains close to its original purpose: a space where an exchange of ideas and cultures takes place and where an environment of tolerance is fostered.

“(I-House gives) you avenues in which you can have conversations with people from other countries. Providing that platform allows you to get to know people,” Bhola said. “Your stereotypes kind of vanish.”

Bhola said the experience of living in I-House is distinct from life in a campus dorm, where age is more often than not homogenous.

“I made friends with a 35-year-old grad student from Swaziland,” Bhola said. “It’s really surprising how well you can gel with people who are way older than you or way younger than you.”

Chair of the I-House House Committee Robert Wong, Bhola and former I-House resident Kwei U have all recalled fostering connections at I-House with a wide range of people.

U, who lived at I-House in the 1960s, said he was offered a job in Germany by a friend and has a room to stay in Paris whenever he wishes.

“Everywhere I go, I will have a home,” Bhola added.

I-House Berkeley was initially met with considerable resistance. Many protested the construction because it would allow not only white people and underrepresented minorities to live together, but also men and women.

“I-House broke the color barrier for students of all different nationalities,” said I-House Executive Director Hans Giesecke.

U noted that the Free Speech Movement exposed him, for the first time, to the “anti-establishment thoughts Berkeley has become famous for.” He said this movement was initially shocking to him, as he grew up in Hong Kong, where citizens were taught to respect the establishment.

“It was a very exciting, tumultuous time, but as a foreign student, you had to be careful not do anything to endanger your visa status,” U said.

I-House’s traditions have changed slightly over the years. In the ’60s, students would gather in the Great Hall after “Sunday Suppers” to sing folk songs from around the world, U said.

Now, one of I-House’s most popular activities is a weekly Wednesday coffee hour. Every coffee hour showcases a different cultural history. Residents dress up and bring their local sweets, Giesecke said.

But according to Wong, while the culture and purpose of I-House haven’t changed significantly, physically, the building has undergone numerous renovations. The most recent renovation includes a transformation of the Dining Commons.

Recently, however, ongoing construction has garnered complaints from some residents.

Thibault Forget, a current resident, said the high cost was not worth the experience.

The noise from the construction on the building and the response he received when he made a complaint gave Forget a poor image of the United States.

“Like many things in America, it’s just a business,” Forget said.

Wong said that there has been tentative interest expressed in establishing an I-House at the new Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay — an ideal setting for an organization that hopes to provide a home to international groups. The Richmond campus is a joint project between UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to build a satellite campus with a global focus.

While the idea is still far from becoming a real project, Wong thinks it is a “wonderful” dream.

Contact Suhauna Hussain at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @suhaunah.