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I-House has encouraged cultural exchange for seven decades

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I-House has encouraged cultural exchange for seven decades

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted June 7, 2000

By D. Lyn Hunter

Public Affairs


In the small, rural Ohio town where I grew up, virtually everyone looked and spoke the same way -- except my mother, she was different. And the townspeople were often unkind to her because of this.

My mom, born and raised in Mexico, was brought to Ohio by my father, who wanted to settle down and raise a family in his home state.

Her accent, way of dressing and style of doing things caused much consternation among the villagers. She was shunned at social gatherings, avoided at the grocery store and had difficulty making friends, simply because she was a foreigner.

It was this kind of discrimination that inspired the creation of Berkeley's International House. Its founders wanted to build a place where those from other countries, specifically students, could live and study in a respectful and supportive environment.

For 70 years, I House has served as a sort of West Coast Ellis Island for academia, with more than 50,000 students from more than 100 countries and 30 states passing through its gates during its history.

Each year, I House welcomes some 600 students -- approximately half from foreign nations and the other half from the United States -- who all live under one roof, to work and play together.

"Everyday tasks, from lunch to laundry, become cross-cultural encounters," said Joseph Lurie, I House executive director. "As a result, barriers begin to crumble."

Within the walls of this Moorish-inspired structure, students gain an understanding of the world's different cultures, making eye-opening discoveries about themselves in the process.

The residents also venture out of their temporary home at Bancroft Way and Piedmont Avenue to explore the surrounding community, visiting African-American churches, Native American sweat lodges or San Francisco's Mission District, during organized field trips.

But like my mother, who met with cruel resistance upon her arrival to my hometown, I House too was subjected to the irrational, bigoted fears of people living in Berkeley during the late 1920s. The prospect of an interracial, coeducational residence and cultural center being built in the middle of an all-white, upper-class neighborhood prompted some 1,000 neighbors to protest I House's creation.

"If there are a lot of little gibbering Asiatics swarming in the street, my property isn't worth anything," said a Berkeley citizen, quoted in a 1928 edition of the local paper.

But I House prevailed and in August of 1930, it become the first such residence west of New York.

The first International House was created in New York City by Harry Edmonds, who worked for the YMCA. He got the idea after an encounter with a Chinese student at Columbia University. When Edmonds said "good morning," the student was shocked. It was the first time during the scholar's three weeks in New York that anyone had spoken to him.

To ease the loneliness and isolation felt by foreign students, Edmonds and his wife, using a $3 million gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr., opened the first I House. The program was such a success, Edmonds convinced Rockefeller to fund a similar institution on the West Coast.

Since its inception, Berkeley's I House has been a place where preconceived notions are discarded, stereotypes are shattered and nationalistic animosities are confronted.

Here, students from warring countries, such as Iran and Iraq or India and Pakistan, find ways to extend olive branches and build relationships with their traditional enemies.

Occasional flair-ups do occur, said Lurie, but the students generally try to deal with them in a constructive way, so that conflicts become learning experiences. On any given evening, one can wander the dining hall, patio or library and hear political philosophies being vigorously debated.

Many I House residents cut their diplomatic teeth during these discussions, moving on to distinguished careers in international relations after leaving Berkeley.

Ambassadors from Sierra Leone, Iceland, Bolivia, Canada and America are counted among I House alumni. The list also includes two California governors -- Jerry Brown and Pete Wilson -- Nobel laureates, distinguished scholars as well as corporate and government leaders.

All in all, this "experiment in international fellowship," as Rockefeller described I House in 1930, has been a success. Lurie, only the third director in the institution's history, now wants to position I House for a lasting and productive future.

The facility is in the midst of a 10-year renovation plan that will enhance safety, increase disabled access and improve the functionality of the space.

Lurie is also looking to support and extend the I House mission by developing an interactive, online global community serving residents, alumni and friends of I House. Their Web site is currently being revamped to offer a variety of new services to keep current and former residents connected.

Attracting more students from developing countries and underrepresented areas of the world is another goal, said Lurie. The resident population should reflect the globe's broad range of ethnic and socio-economic diversity, he said.

A microcosm of the world, I House is a magical melange of people, cultures and experiences. Lurie said he hopes residents take what they learn at I House -- embracing and respecting diversity -- and spread this message of tolerance around the globe, making the kind of discrimination encountered by the Chinese student at Columbia, and my mother, a thing of the past.



June 7 - July 11, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 34)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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