by Caroline Donadio, Lead Archivist, International House
Since I began my post in September 2019, I have genuinely enjoyed learning about the history and mission of International House. In our current political landscape, it is rewarding to be involved with a community devoted to fostering understanding and promoting world peace. With over 100 years of material in our Archives, I frequently encounter the inspiring lived experiences that embody our institution. These are stories that demonstrate our continued value–proof that regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality, it is possible for all peoples to live together.
As I began my research, it became clear that understanding how and why I-House was established would be crucial to appreciate why it continues to remain so relevant today. So where to begin, but at the beginning!
The concept of International House did not form overnight. It took years of planning and fundraising by Harry and Florence Edmonds for this institution to be fully realized. As most of us know, this movement began with a fateful encounter in 1909 when Harry Edmonds, then the Secretary for the YMCA, greeted a Chinese student on the steps of Columbia University’s library. When the bewildered student expressed his gratitude for being acknowledged, Edmonds was alarmed to learn that he was the first person to speak with the student in over three weeks. From this encounter, an idea began to take shape, and Edmonds envisioned an organization that would connect and support the growing population of international students in the New York City metropolitan area.
Although he was never able to locate that particular Chinese student again, Edmonds and his wife Florence began inviting like students to their home on Sunday afternoons. It was during these meetings that the Edmonds noticed something special taking place; while the students hailed from different nations all over the globe, they regarded one another as peers and treated each other with respect, eager to learn about one another.
What began as small gatherings soon grew in size and interest. To continue to cultivate and promote international friendships, the Edmonds needed support and funding. At the time, social “Cosmopolitan Clubs” were popular organizations that provided members with unique events and programming opportunities to widen their social circles. In 1912, it was with a loose affiliation with the YMCA organization that the Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club was born. The Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club hosted Sunday Suppers, dances, receptions, etc., and provided appointees for international students to meet with each other and Americans alike. The mission, as captured in an article in The New York Times (December 28, 1921), was to “unite for the mutual benefit, socially, intellectually, and morally, students of all nationalities in the colleges, universities, and professional schools of New York: to promote friendly relations between foreign and American students, and to bring foreign students in contact with American home life.” In 1920, the club’s constituency comprised 760 students representing 70 nations and 13 educational institutions of the city.
The idea for a house came on the heels of World War I, when Edmonds performed a survey of the living conditions of students from abroad and found them severely lacking. Not only were international students subject to a post-war xenophobic climate, but the majority were living in isolation and separated from the American community. While a small Club House was maintained on West 114th Street to house international students, it was not sustainable. With the help of the Dodge and Rockefeller families, the Edmonds purchased plots of land and raised a building where both international and domestic students could live and thrive in peace. Opened in 1924, the International House incorporated and continued the values of the Intercollegiate Cosmopolitan Club, including Sunday Suppers and international dances. During a memorable dinner in 1923, John D. Rockefeller Jr. identified brotherhood as an essential tenet of peace. This value became a guiding principle of the House and the concept “That Brotherhood May Prevail” became the official motto.