Home away from
home at I-House
A former International House resident, Henry Pernet, AM'67,
PhD'79, became I-House director in December 2000. Previously
secretary general of the University Hospitals of Geneva,
Pernet has also managed a European real-estate firm and
spent six years in the banking industry. His master's and
doctoral degrees are in history of religions from the Divinity
School, and he lived in I-House for two years in the 1960s.
The 500-room International House of Chicago
is currently home to 370 residents—College third-
and fourth-years, graduate students, and University visitors—from
more than 50 countries including the United States. Since
its 1932 founding by John D. Rockefeller Jr., Chicago's
I-House, one of 13 worldwide, has been home to more than
30,000 persons. The house also serves the city of Chicago
as a cultural center, hosting activities such as international
dance and music events, cross-cultural celebrations, and
educational programs including discussions and debates on
Why is it necessary in today's world to have an International
House on this campus?
The purpose is to develop understanding
and mutual respect between people of different backgrounds.
A global society does not change the need for that. In this
house we have people from Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Turkey,
Iran, Pakistan, India, and many Asian countries—Taiwan,
China, Korea, Japan. They say to us that only here could
they talk to each other. The fact that we are moving toward
a global society does not mean that everybody talks to everybody
or understands. Having a setting such as this, where differences
are celebrated, is more important than ever, more important
even than in 1932 when the house opened.
What does an international
student find when he or she arrives at I-House?
Many international students are worried
about being isolated when they arrive in America—not
knowing what to do, how to do it, no notion of what life
in America is. International House is the perfect place
because they find a community that is ready to help, to
give them the tools they need to deal with American society.
We have a number of programs that do just that—bringing
international students into American families for Thanksgiving,
to cite one of our oldest programs.
What happens if foreign students don't
live in International House is either they are isolated
or they create ghettos: five Chinese students renting an
apartment, cooking for themselves, living by themselves
in an isolated bubble. International House is quite a different
When I came in 1963 to America I had
seen movies about America, and the first thing I discovered
was that it wasn't at all like in the movies. You have to
find your way in this society. The house is here to help,
and it does.
How do you ensure there's a mingling of
American and international students?
Right now we are about 60 percent foreigners,
40 percent Americans. That's a good balance. The original
idea behind International House was to mix Americans with
foreigners as a group. But it's as important now to mix
foreigners with foreigners—Iraqis with Israelis—as
it is to mix Americans with foreigners. The development
of understanding and respect that occurs here is not only
between Americans and the "others"; it's between
How does programming
play into I-House's mission?
One part of the house's mission has always
been to be a resource to the University community, the Hyde
Park community, the greater Chicago community, and even
the greater Midwest. That was the original intent of John
D. Rockefeller Jr. We do that in many ways. The house sponsors
its own activities. We also collaborate with University
departments, with faculty members, with other institutions
around the city, including foreign consulates, universities,
and any number of cultural institutions. The house is a
The architecture—one of the most
misunderstood aspects of the house—lends itself to
this mission. This is not a dorm; it's conceived as a house,
with a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, all kinds
of other rooms where you meet—and also bedrooms.
But that's not the place where you're supposed to spend
all your time. Even in 1932 our rooms were intended as bedrooms,
not living spaces. The building was meant to push the students
out of the rooms and force them to meet with each other.
The day-to-day interaction takes place in the public rooms
throughout the building's second and first floors.
You see this in our recently renovated
community kitchen. We don't want people to cook in their
rooms. They come down, and they end up cooking together,
sharing meals, sharing recipes. This is the kind of interaction
that we want in the house.
What are your goals
The goal on the residential side is to
have full occupancy—with all but 50 to 100 of our
rooms occupied, reserving those for short-term residents—and
probably even more than that: to be in a position to choose
who lives here. For that we need to renovate the house.
We must also renovate the assembly hall
space, a mandate that comes not just from within but from
the University's recent report on the arts, which noted
that the campus was lacking in performing-arts space. We
have a beautiful 500-plus seat facility, and we are doing
a lot with it, but the day is coming when that will need
renovation too. We want to be up to date for the University's
needs, to be an asset for the University, not just this
old thing that was built in the 1930s.
Why are I-House alumni so committed to
keeping it open and active?
The building works on you—even
though you may not be interested in this whole ideology
of respect and understanding. You do change when you live
here. I-House residents share something. I don't know exactly
what it is, but it's a different attitude, certainly.
Have things changed since your days here?
I'm not sure one should trust the memory
of something 39 years ago. But I think the basic structure
is still here and works the same. You arrive here as a very
isolated being. I remember getting into O'Hare and having
to find a bus to go downtown and having to find the Illinois
Central to come here. And you arrived with a 44-pound suitcase,
and that was it. You find people here who have been through
that, who help you, take you around.
I think the basic experience is still
the same. Here I made friends of all kinds. It's not just
a theory: we do create relationships here.