When Gordon Evans was President of International House, Residents ran the security desk, rent was $289 a month, and there was no “I-House North” yet. Now, for the first time since leaving in 1993, Evans returned to I-House to sit with current President Calvin Sims and talk about what else has changed in the last 25 years.
On November 20, 2018, Residents, Alumni, current and former Staff and members of the Board of Trustees gathered in the Home Room to hear the discussion. Trustees William (Bill) Rueckert and Peter O’Neill took the podium one after another to introduce Evans, who was president of I-House from 1982-1993. They highlighted some of the historical events that occurred during Evans’ tenure: living through the abolishment of apartheid, the AIDS crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and reminded residents that there was no internet nor were there cell phones in the 80’s—in fact, all Residents had a land line in their rooms.
Sims said that as I-House moves toward its centennial, one of the projects he has been interested in developing is an oral history of the House. He posed an overarching question to Evans: “So much of ‘then’ is ‘now,’” he said. “Why do you think the House is still important?”
Evans was quick to respond. “I think it’s more important,” he said. “I think the digital world has alienated people from human contact.”
He poked fun at the wide-screen television in the Dining Hall that now broadcasts the news through mealtimes. While the Dining Hall historically has served as a place of congregation and discussion, today some students take food to go or up to their rooms. But the live television news feed, which has no sound, often encourages Residents to sit down and engage in a dinner conversation around the news of the day.
While the way Residents dine may have changed, many things about living here have not. The House is designed in a way that’s meant to encourage conversation with people you don’t know, with communal dining, study and lounge spaces. What tends to draw more engagement than a regular dinner, however, are the free in-house educational and social events where Residents can pick at hors d’oeuvres and mingle before attending a documentary screening, book talk, or political discussion as well as parties and other gatherings.
In the world of screens, it’s undoubtedly harder to bring people together, but Sims is determined to keep trying. Days before the event, Sims had presented at the United Nation’s International Day of Education on the development of global leadership. He mentioned in his remarks that “social engineering” is part of what I-House does.
“We’re taking those folks who have the capacity for leadership in the future and we’re exposing them to an environment where every day you are challenged by somebody who is different,” said Sims. “Ultimately, Residents leave I-House with a deeper understanding of other cultures and the ability to navigate across cultures and geographies with respect, empathy, and moral courage…I-House changes how you see the world – and how the world sees you.”
“Eighty percent of Residents are changed for life,” Evans added, nodding.
The evening was about sharing stories, and Evans had the room laughing a few times a minute with stories about presiding over so many and diverse Residents during sometimes tumultuous periods. During his Presidency, Evans and his wife, Barbara, would make it a goal to know at least 100 of the Residents living in the House in any given year. The couple would invite Residents over for dinner, or to decorate a Christmas tree, and learn about the people living in the House. He mentioned some of the most memorable conflicts that occurred during his presidency, one of which centered on a missing beer keg, and an altercation between Residents that involved a butter knife. He spoke at length about the rise of the LGBTQ movement and becoming an ally to the LGBTQ population living in the House.
The former president also recounted the acquisition of the building that we now know as I-House North. The addition expanded the House’s capacity to bring in more Residents from around the world and made it possible for families to live in the House.
“The building is beautiful,” Evans said to Sims. Evans presented Sims with a framed picture of an aerial view of International House. In turn, Sims presented Evans with an inscribed I-House silver bowl, thanking Evans and his wife Barbara for their meritorious service to the House.
During the Q&A, the focus turned to the future. A Resident asked simply: “Will there ever be a woman president of I-House?” The answer, from both Presidents, was a resounding “Yes.”
Reflecting on his return after 25 years, Evans spoke with great respect and affection for the House and for its role in New York’s history. From fostering future leaders to creating camaraderie between people who otherwise may not have ever met, he summed up I-House, as well as the feeling in the room, with one sentence: “This is a magical place.”
Stephanie Philp is currently pursuing a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) at Columbia University School of the Arts. Previously she was an intern with the National Magazine Awards Foundation, where she wrote for the Magazine Awards and Digital Publishing Awards blogs. Read more by Stephanie on her blog and follow her on Twitter @MsPhilp.
(All photos by Sepideh Behadzpour for International House)