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UC’s International House Has Fostered Friendships for 75 Years By STEVEN FINACOM

Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 03, 2005

“The plain fact is that we are members one of another and that we are not living in accordance with the nature of things—That is, we are not living in accordance with the facts, if we think only our own thoughts, and sit nowhere ever except upon the lonesome throne of our own outlook,” University of California President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, told Berkeley students in 1907. 

“Hatred between men, hatred between classes, hatred between peoples, represents always this stubborn unwillingness to get over onto the other hilltop and see how the plain looks from there.” Although he would not have known it at the time, Wheeler’s remarks now seem most expressive of a Berkeley institution, International House, founded not long after his death. International House was one of three programs at American universities—Columbia, Berkeley, and Chicago—funded by Rockefeller gifts in the 1920s in an effort to bring American and foreign students together in the same residences and thus build international understanding and friendship. 

This is the 75th year since the August, 1930, opening of Berkeley’s “I House” building, which rises in an impressive and eclectically appropriate mixture of Spanish, Moorish, and Indian architectural influences at the peak of Bancroft Way, just beyond the southeast corner of the Berkeley campus. It stands as a substantive secular temple to human understanding, physically and programmatically multitudinous and splendid, an institution among institutions. 

Today, I House is so much a familiar part of Berkeley’s physical and cultural landscape that many people take it for granted, perhaps thinking of it in the same detached way they might regard some distinguished but only distantly acquainted relative—with a general sense of approval and goodwill, but with little interest in greater familiarity.  

That is a shame, since International House and its programs were radical for much of Berkeley in the 1930s and have since been witness to, or catalyst for, so much of what changed city, nation, and world in the 20th century. The questioning and removal of legal and social barriers based on racial prejudice. National and international conflicts, and their resolutions, whether tragic or inspiring. Efforts, still only part finished, to create campuses and communities of durable and harmonious diversity. I House continues to be of vital necessity in the 21st century.  

As part of an effort to make this remarkable Berkeley institution more understandable to both residents and the general public, I House, in 2004, produced a slim but powerful community memoir. Close Encounters Of A Cross-Cultural Kind presents both historical sketches of the founding of I House and key eras in the institution’s history, but is primarily a set of personal testimonials drawn from decades of speeches, letters, and statements from former residents staff, and visitors. Most of the recollections are Reader’s Digest short—the voices of more than 40 individuals are represented in about 100 pages—but they convey a powerful message. I House changes people for the better. The experience of living there, or even just visiting, opens eyes and minds, often in spite of the most daunting backdrops of age-old national and racial prejudices and stereotypes. 

Excerpts from the book provide ample evidence of personal change. Here, for example, is the account of an Armenian visitor whose parents were killed by Turks, becoming friends with the Turkish student who poured coffee in the dining room. A former American G.I. and a student from Japan, also an ex-soldier, are assigned as roommates immediately after World War II and learn to re-examine their stereotypes. An Iranian woman writes that “before September 11, some of my closest friends and spiritual soul mates were Americans, and after Sept. 11 they turned on me…Because I thought Americans hated me, I hated all Americans back with passion.” She rethinks these feelings only after she moves into I House and is assigned an American roommate from the deep South who proves different from all her negative expectations.  

An African-American resident describes how the open-minded attitudes of a roommate with mixed Caribbean and British ancestry change his own perspectives on issues “black and white.” “I discovered that when I refuse intercultural discourse, when I expect the worst from people, and when I limit myself and expect the same from others…then I become the racist.” A former student from Israel describes finds himself, in 1972, eating his first meal at I-House with residents from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Egypt, as well as a Palestinian.  

“I had never before met an Arab, only seen them from afar through the hostile barbed-wire fence of a frontier,” he wrote. “I began to understand that the hatreds on which we had grown up were left far behind us, and that here at I House we could see one another as individuals, as people, as warm and caring human beings.” And a resident in the late 1980s recalls, “I remember students from round the world watching as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. I looked around me and realized how many of us at I House had taken down the walls within ourselves…Living there taught me more about politics than my graduate classes in political science.” 

While many of the writers in the Close Encounters anthology describe important transformations in their lives because of I House, their stories are rarely preachy or pontificating, and several contain wry humor. One American from New York writes of his Russian roommate, “the poetic drama of East and West together was tested at two o’clock in the morning, when Sergei would snore…” Other writers regretfully describe tensions with roommates and acquaintances early in their residency, missed opportunities for friendship, differences that they only later realized they could have avoided. 

But most of the accounts are uplifting. By the simple act of putting people with different backgrounds together in ordinary daily life, I House reshapes its residents. The cumulative impact cannot be inconsiderable. Since 1930, some 60,000 “I House alumni” have gone out into, or returned to, the world beyond Berkeley. They include seven Nobel Laureates, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, two former Governors of California and thousands of others who have, in their individual way, spread I House ideals around the world. 

Many of those are Californians and others from the United States, since International House has, since its beginnings, intentionally mixed both domestic and foreign students. it’s not simply a residence and place for “others”, but for all of us. 




Close Encounters Of A Cross-Cultural Kind can be purchased through the International House Development Office for $11.95 plus $2 shipping. Proceeds go to the Annual Scholarship Fund. 

Send a check drawn on a U.S. bank payable to International House to International House Development Office, 2299 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley, CA 94720, or call 642-5128. If ordering by mail, be sure to include the address to which the book should be sent. 

I-House is in the midst of a series of events to celebrate the building’s 75th anniversary.  

Next up, this Thursday, May 5, is the annual Awards Gala, an evening event honoring actress Rita Moreno and Sybase CEO John Chen, and featuring foods selected by local restauranteur Narsai David. For further information on attending the Gala, call 642-4128. 

A 75th anniversary reunion follows in early June, and other events are planned for the Fall.  

For more information on I House and programs there, visit