January 21, 2016

Irate Over I-House

International House's scheduled transformation into exclusively undergrad dorm forgoes its original mission, to the detriment of the university

Last week, the University announced its decision to turn International House (I-House) into an exclusively undergraduate residence hall beginning in the fall of 2016. The decision was supposedly made to "accommodate an increasing number of College students." To put this decision in perspective, International House will cease to provide accommodation for graduate students, exchange students, visiting scholars, and researchers—domestic and international alike—after the current academic year. These changes will effectively eliminate International House’s international residential community. The University should reconsider its decision, because its implementation will violate International House’s mission and result in the loss of a unique culture and community.

I-House was originally endowed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1932 and intended to be a "home away from home" for the significant number of international students who came to pursue knowledge at the University. Currently, I-House houses residents from around 50 countries each year. It is one of 17 sister institutions worldwide dedicated to serving the same mission. Since its opening in 1932, the International House at the University of Chicago has provided accommodations for students from many nations and fields of study, as well as exchange students, visiting scholars, researchers, and, on occasion, a number of luminaries. Langston Hughes, who was a poet-in-residence in 1949, described it as "a pleasant place to live, to practice one's languages, and to meet students and teachers from all around the world."  Other former residents include atomic scientist Enrico Fermi and newspaper publisher Katharine Graham.

In light of this storied tradition, the University’s decision came as a shock to many current and former I-House residents. While the changes are purportedly temporary, the University has not indicated any plans to return to the current system. It has simply said that I-House will be occupied by the undergraduate housing system "until the next major residence hall construction," which should be complete "in a few years" and "at that point, it will be possible to move back to partial occupancy by graduate students." This explanation is vague and inadequate and alone cannot serve as a guarantee that I-House will return to its original mission in the foreseeable future.

Besides, the fact remains that the University’s decision—even if it is a temporary one—is against the International House mission. In fact, in 2013, the main lounge of International House was memorialized as the "David Rockefeller Lounge," in honor of the Rockefeller legacy and financial contributions which still continue to this day. These contributions were made explicitly to continue I-House’s original mission: to promote the understanding and fellowship "among the peoples of all nations." A discontinuation of this service, temporary or permanent, would violate the International House mission and the original agreement made between the University and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the 1930s. It is clear that the purpose I-House serves, first and foremost, is to provide much-needed accommodation for international students.  So long as there is still a significant number of international students at the University, I-House should continue to serve this purpose.

One might argue that while the International House will no longer house graduate students and scholars, it will still continue to host internationally-focused programs and events and continue its relationship with international organizations; that in this way, its function as a "host to the world" will not change. This argument is flawed. The residential component of I-House is indispensable to its mission. As we all know, traditions must be lived to be kept alive. It is through living together that bonds are formed and friendships are deepened. In fact, the Office of Undergraduate Housing is well-aware of this fact and exists to serve the same mission: to provide a shared, welcoming living space for like-minded yet diverse young students. An I-House that houses exclusively College students in the undergraduate housing system will be imbued with the characteristics of undergraduate houses, which have different goals and missions from those of I-House and will not be dedicated to facilitate life-long international friendship.

I experienced all of I-House's vibrant community first-hand as a resident during my last two years at the College. The benefits of living in an international community were immense. My fellow residents came from every walk of scholarship and life, from students in the College to foreign government officials pursuing their higher degrees to doctoral scholars in philosophy, economics, linguistics, and the sciences to Fulbright scholars and year-long exchange students from the most esteemed institutions worldwide. This kind of diversity facilitated the exchange of cultures and ideas and forged friendships that I never could have imagined otherwise. This is also a testament to the role I-House plays in being a true "host to the world." Without the presence of any student outside of the undergraduate housing system, all of this would be lost. This has already caused an uproar among current and former I-House residents, which will only amplify in the weeks and months to come.

Recently, the University announced the closure of a number of other undergraduate residence halls at the end of this academic year. These undergraduate residence halls also have vibrant communities. The University has devoted significant resources to preserve these communities: it has painstakingly communicated every detail of the closures to the students, proposed closing ceremonies, and ensured that all students would be relocated to other houses on campus. In contrast, no detailed explanation was given to the graduate students residing in I-House. Both Undergraduate Housing and I-House were created to foster communities and to forge life-long friendships. The University has taken so much effort to keep the communities within the undergraduate houses intact, but has not done anything to preserve that of I-House. Why is one community valued more than another?

One of the longest-running traditions at International House is the “Sunday Supper.” At the end of each academic year, the residents gather in the auditorium for a supper by candlelight accompanied by music, speeches, and the presentation of “the resident of the year” award. At the end of the supper, residents each light a candle and group themselves by nationality. Then, one after another, the groups take the stage and read aloud the pledge of International House in their own language:

“As light begets light, so love, friendship and goodwill are passed from one to another. We who have come from many nations to live in one fellowship at International House promise one another to pass the light wherever we go."

I hope the University will reconsider its decision to terminate this fellowship of many nations who have come to live together at the International House at the University of Chicago.

Lucy Duan is an alumna of the College (A.B. ’13)

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