Forming Connections as Grad Students

Grad students at I-House

From April 2019

By Anne Hartman Raether

As Director of International House Chicago, Denise Jorgens often hears stories of alumni forming lifelong friendships—and even meeting their spouses—through connections first made at I-House. These relationships, often between individuals of different nationalities and academic backgrounds, were possible because of the opportunities that I-House provides.  

“Community building across academic disciplines and different cultural backgrounds is a role that I-House has always played,” Jorgens said. “With the rigorous academic programs, it can be very hard to find time or even opportunities to meet people outside of your academic discipline. It can get very lonely.”

To help build connections, I-House offers programs that foster friendships among international graduate and professional school students. This is particularly evident in two programs: one, a longstanding tradition of hosting a Sunday Supper or Candlelight Supper to allow graduate students to share stories of their experiences, and the other, the Global Mentorship Network, a new program led by I-House and the Office of International Affairs that connects cohorts of first-year international graduate students with student mentors. The Office of the Provost awarded both programs Inclusive Climate Grants, which are given to programs that aim to make the UChicago campus more inclusive and diverse. Through these grants, both programs will continue to grow and reach more students.

Sunday Suppers date back to before the first I-House even opened its doors, when Harry Edmonds, then a YMCA official, met a Chinese graduate student outside of Columbia University Library in 1909. Edmonds greeted the student, who thanked him for being the first person to speak to him since he arrived in the United States three weeks earlier. Edmonds was taken aback by this encounter and the hardships that international students face. He started inviting the student, along with other international students, to his home on Sunday afternoons. As the gatherings steadily grew over the years, Edmonds dreamt of building a community space for international students. That dream became reality thanks to the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Cleveland H. Dodge family, which led to the construction of the first International House in New York City in 1924. Rockefeller then went on to build houses in Berkeley (1930), Chicago (1932), and Paris (1936). Today, there are nineteen International Houses on four continents.

I-Houses worldwide carry on Sunday Suppers, where students can mingle and enjoy international cuisine and hear from prominent guest speakers. I-House Chicago will host four Sunday Suppers for graduate students in the 2018–19 academic year and plans to continue hosting them quarterly. At the March supper, I-House welcomed Alice Lewthwaite, the great-granddaughter of Edmonds who had just spent seventy-three days traveling to twenty-two I-Houses worldwide to connect with students and alumni and gain a deeper understanding of her family’s legacy. Lewthwaite was retracing the steps of Edmonds, who had made a similar trip in 1966.

At I-House Chicago, Sunday Suppers are punctuated by a Candle Lighting Ceremony where attendees gather to recite the I-House pledge: “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.” The pledge is first recited in English, and then attendees are invited to recite the words in their own languages.

“When you read the pledge in your own language, it gives this strength of internalizing what the pledge actually means to you,” said Ram Itani, a second-year master’s student from Nepal studying chemistry and a Ralph W. Nicholas Fellow at I-House.

“We all take pride in our own languages and what we bring to I-House in our unique ways; we see that over the year at events with different cultural themes,” added Kevin Irakoze, a second-year PhD student from Burundi studying philosophy and a GRAD Global Impact Intern at I-House. “But this is an event where we all come together and hear the joy of the other languages as they are spoken, which we do not hear often.”

I-House also builds community through the Global Mentorship Network, a one-year program that creates a support system for new international graduate students. The program launched in autumn 2018 and quickly grew to twelve cohorts of five to eight mentees who are paired with two graduate student mentors.

The cohorts meet separately for intimate gatherings, such as monthly coffee chats, and convene for larger group outings, such as trivia nights at the Pub, excursions to various Chicago neighborhoods, and improv workshops with the Revival Improv Comedy Theater. The network is not only a place where students can bounce questions off their peers; it’s also a reprieve from the pressures that come with being a graduate student.

“There are professional development mentorships through individual schools on campus, but this is much more focused on friendship building and social interaction,” said Hannah Barton, Assistant Director of Programs and Communications at I-House. “There are so many new graduate students who can benefit from returning graduate students in a wide range of ways.”

For Itani, being a mentor in the Global Mentorship Network offered a chance for him to give back. “I felt a responsibility,” he said. “When I was an undergrad, other students helped me. I wanted to do the same thing for someone else.”

Both Itani and Irakoze, who is also a mentor, said the experience is just as rewarding for them as it is for their mentees.

“Being a mentor really gives me a different sense of the campus community,” said Irakoze. “I don’t take any classes at Harris, for example, or SSA, or Booth. But in talking to those students, I’m learning about the exciting things that are happening.”

“I wanted to get more experience outside of what I was doing,” Itani added. “I have four mentees from China, one from India, one from Mexico, and one from Taiwan. It’s nice to learn about their cultures and thoughts. It’s both give and take.”