When first entering International House, or I-House, visitors are greeted by the artwork of David Goines. A white dove is included in each poster, symbolizing peace and I-House’s commitment to fostering intercultural understanding and friendship among students for the purpose of promoting a more just world.
It began in 1909, when Harry Edmonds, a young man working for the Young Men’s Christian Association in New York City, greeted a Chinese student on the steps of Columbia University Libraries. The man said it was the first time someone had spoken to him since he came to the city three weeks prior.
“Harry Edmonds felt this uneasiness and went back to his wife to talk about it,” said Nayeli Vivanco, Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership and Programs vice president. “They decided to host these Sunday suppers at their house to invite international students to have dialogue and share cultures.”
Sunday Suppers, a tradition that continues today, was meant to bring together a diverse coalition of students. Following the success of the suppers, facilitators decided to establish the first I-House in New York City with the support of the Rockefeller Family in 1924.
In 1930, I-House Berkeley was opened. Its introduction sparked controversy because of the emphasis on racial and gender inclusion, according to I-House Director of Philanthropy Bill Howley.
“There was something like 800 people who protested with signs and torches … because there were going to be interracial people from all over the world, men and women living together,” Howley said. “It was a big deal.”
At the time of its establishment, I-House Berkeley was the largest student housing complex in the Bay Area and the first co-educational residence “west of the Mississippi,” according to the I-House website.
Today, there are 600 students from more than 70 different countries studying 100 academic disciplines at I-House, Howley noted.
Committed to fostering cultural competency and connecting people from different backgrounds, I-House seeks to bring together students from both the United States and other countries who are aligned with its mission and want to take an active part in growing the community.
Before students settle in, they attend an orientation and participate in team-building activities and cross-cultural communication learning, according to Vivanco.
“This is something we have not fully brought back since COVID-19 broke out, but we are working on bringing it back … to prepare residents pre-arrival and set them up for success,” Vivanco said.
Every Wednesday evening at I-House, residents gather for “DiversiTea and Coffee Hour” where I-House members get to introduce their respective cultures to other attendees, Vivanco noted.
“I call it a tourist approach to cultural understanding because it’s got the food, the dancing and the trivia,” Vivanco said.
Tord Olav Dønnum, a UC Berkeley master’s student from Norway, said he had fun hosting Coffee Hour with other Norwegian residents. They played Kahoot, ate Norwegian waffles and brown cheese, and had a potato race.
Dønnum said I-House has helped him find a sense of commonality among diverse groups of students.
“We have also been on hikes, played scavenger hunts on campus, visited San Francisco,” Dønnum said. “(It) has helped me get to know the area better and meet new people.”
Despite campus junior Elisa Marconell Tejedor having lived in five different countries throughout her life, she said she did not realize how little she knew until she came to I-House and started learning about unique cultures.
Tejedor was drawn to I-House because of the diversity of its residents and her desire to be around people from different cultures — something she has been accustomed to since childhood.
“If you are walking alone in the dining hall and you look around, you will see every group inviting you to come sit with them,” Tejedor said. “Everyone here is very friendly.”
Campus senior Paige Lyles, who is of Turkish and German descent, echoed the sentiment and said she chose to live at I-House because of her multicultural upbringing and her love and appreciation for diversity.
Earlier this month, Lyles helped co-host I-House’s Resident Benefit Concert, where residents get to showcase their musical and artistic talents. They raised more than $1,000 in donations for the Berkeley Food Pantry, Lyles said.
Critical Conversations, an event started by Vivanco, emerged following the controversy surrounding the use of the Swastika symbol in a Diwali celebration. In light of the cultural misunderstanding, Vivanco proposed having a “critical conversation” among Hindu, Jewish and European residents to understand origins of the symbol and how the Swastika was misappropriated by the Nazis.
In an effort to facilitate greater cultural understanding, Critical Conversations gives I-House residents an opportunity to share dialogue on difficult topics and issues.
“If we don’t have these critical conversations, then it is a missed opportunity because we want I-House to be a place where people can express themselves and have these conversations,” Vivanco said. “We are going to agree to disagree, but let’s figure out how to do it peacefully and make sure we are listening to everybody.”
Besides DiversiTea and Coffee Hour, Critical Conversations and Sunday Supper, Howley said that residents get to commemorate cultural and religious holidays such as Diwali and Chinese New Year.
Although the world has significantly changed since I-House was first established, Howley emphasized that racism is still prevalent and that having a place like I-House is needed today more than ever.
“(We are) working on ways for people to communicate, to understand, to have mutual respect,” Howley said. “Hopefully at the end, you get a more just and peaceful world.”