• The World's Stage

    I-House Brings Cultural and Intellectual Programming to UChicago

By Joe Grace

From Global Voices Author Night with Pulitzer-Prize winner Clarence Page to lectures from political strategist David Axelrod and Argonne National Laboratory scientists to Global Health Week programming to Latin American policy forums, International House has been putting together programming that celebrates diversity and incites curiosity since 1932.

Denise Jorgens, director of I-House and this year’s recipient of the Diversity Leadership Staff Award, says she sees part of her role and the mission of I-House as helping people appreciate their common humanity while bringing various groups together to provide cultural opportunities for the Chicago community.

Through the Global Voices Performing Arts & Lecture Series, I-House offers its space and support to organizations to help facilitate these opportunities. The program aims to raise awareness of contemporary issues and has brought artists, scholars, and leading figures from the world stage to I-House.

“Typically we present 150 to 200 public programs annually,” says Mary Beth DeStefano, who leads the Global Voices Program as associate director of programs and external relations at I-House. “It’s a wonderful outreach to the community at large involving alumni members, faculty, students, staff as well as the Greater Chicago area. People comment regularly that they enjoy collaborating with our series because of the diversity of the audience that attends our programs.”

DeStefano says that there are about 145 collaborative partnerships involved in the implementation and scheduling of I-House programming each year, including study centers on campus and schools and departments within UChicago.

“This role that International House plays as a part of the community is something that International House always has done,” DeStefano says.

I-House in Chicago was founded in 1932 by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and its mission is to enable students and scholars to live and learn together. Part of that mission includes bringing various parts of the Chicago community together to learn about each other.

“For 84 years, International House has taken this part of our mission very seriously,” DeStefano says. “We are a link between the University community and the city of Chicago community. . . . Many ethnic communities in Chicago have identified with International House as their cultural center. We’ve always had an open door in Chicago’s community.”

The first International House was started in New York City in 1924, and one of the first programs to bring cultures together were its Sunday suppers.

“Our Sunday supper program is really where the International House ideal comes from,” Jorgens says. “We still have Sunday suppers and our sister houses all have Sunday suppers. We have a candle lighting ceremony and an International House pledge in which students read the promise to pass the light of friendship wherever they go. . . . They are using this experience to really make a difference in the world.”

From a simple sharing of a meal together, I-House has branched out to bringing complex matters to stage for public consumption as well as eclectic performances from around the world.

What helps make these programs possible is the work of students from I-House and throughout the University. I-House regularly collaborates with student groups to host conferences or cultural festivals that showcase the talent of the student body, DeStefano says. Staff supports student groups in developing goals and objectives for their events as well as timelines to track the logistics involved in creating programming.

And then there are the students who have helped bring the programming together through the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program, which launched in 1997 and is named for a UChicago professor and I-House board member.

“Because of their efforts,” DeStefano says, “our small staff is able to coordinate this series of a 150 plus programs each year . . . We’re really delighted to provide this type of professional training to a team of 15 students.”

Some of the tasks these students are responsible for include creating press releases, interviewing upcoming speakers and writing news articles for media outlets, and designing posters and announcements. Others are trained in videography and video editing, maintaining websites and enewsletters, and AV support. To assist in the variety of programming I-House offers, students learn event coordination and managing large audiences.

The internship program, DeStefano says, is “the key to our programming. It’s been very successful and grows every year.”

Katherine Aanensen, a fourth-year undergraduate, is one of the Global Voices Metcalf Interns helping to bring programming to I-House.

“While a first-year undergraduate, I had the opportunity to live in Booth, a College House within International House,” Aanensen says. “I was fascinated by the robust Global Voices Program and attended a few events, but hadn't thought strongly about applying at that point.”

During her first year, however, she volunteered to do audio work for a production of Much Ado About Nothing that had a cast and crew consisting of I-House residents. That experience led her to apply for the program.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to use some of the skills I had learned through theater and performance work to contribute to the vibrant intellectual and cultural life of International House,” Aanensen says.

As a student and a musician, the experience has been rewarding for Aanensen. 

“Working at the Global Voices Program offered me unprecedented access to a wide variety of academics, performers, and diplomats from across international boundaries and disciplines,” Aanensen says. “Being able to help organize, market, and plan these events—and in many cases meet the performers—has not only broadened my musical horizons and allowed me to gain insight into cross-cultural communication through various musical styles, but also expanded my reach and understanding of the role of music in Chicago—both in immigrant and diasporic communities as well as on campus.”