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British Ambassador Fêtes International Student House of D.C.

By Anna Gawel 

At a time when international education exchange programs at the State Department are facing steep budget cuts and anti-immigrant sentiment is forcing foreign students to reconsider studying in the U.S., the International Student House of Washington, D.C. (ISH-DC) stands as a reminder that education is still a global endeavor.

“ISH was founded as a refuge for foreign nationals. Over the decades, it has served as a beacon of tolerance, cooperation and diplomacy,” said British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch at a Feb. 15 tribute dinner at his residence to honor ISH-DC, a nonprofit that houses about 100 international scholars at any one time in the heart of Dupont Circle.

Established in 1934, the International Student House in D.C. — then located on New Hampshire Avenue and home to only 18 students from Georgetown, George Washington, Catholic and American universities — sought to ease the transition of international students arriving in Washington for undergraduate and graduate studies. It also served as a refuge for students of color, both local and international, who were effectively shut out of rooming houses throughout large parts of the city due to de facto segregation (also see “International Student House Offers Roof and Relationships” in the November 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).


British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch welcomes guests to a Feb. 15 tribute dinner at his residence to honor the International Student House of D.C. (ISH-DC), a nonprofit that houses about 100 international scholars at any one time in the heart of Dupont Circle. Photo: International Student House of Washington, D.C. (Photo: International Student House of Washington, D.C.)

In 1946, the organization purchased the house on R Street, constructed a second adjacent building in 1967 and two decades later purchased a third building to expand capacity to 100 students at a time, or 300 over the course of a year. Notable alumni include a former Norwegian finance minister, a member of Indonesia’s parliament and Geir Haarde, Iceland’s former prime minister who now serves as ambassador in Washington.

Cynthia Bunton, president of the ISH Board of Directors and an alumna herself, talked about the Tudor-style residence’s long history. “For the past 81 years, more than 15, 000 young scholars and professionals from about 140 countries have lived at the house – sharing meals, pub quiz tournaments, and common space. Every year, 300 students from 60 countries pass through our halls. While every group of students is different, what we ultimately take away from ISH is the same. And that is how to live together and how to better understand the world,” she told the dinner guests, which included members of Congress, business supporters, alumni and current ISH-DC students from Mongolia, India, Kuwait, Germany, South Sudan and China.

One of those residents, Alex Beck, a Ph.D. student at the George Washington University, reflected on being an American in a sea of foreign students.


ISH-DC resident Alex Beck, a Ph.D. student at the George Washington University, receives a gift from Vanessa Darroch, wife of the British ambassador. (Photo: International Student House of Washington, D.C.)

“I’m known around the International Student House as the American who only speaks English and who studies American politics…. Now, to be fair, at one time I did study European politics before switching my academic focus, but at this point I’m pretty sure they haven’t kicked me out of the house due to my enduring love of world football and the one-and-only Liverpool Football Club,” he quipped before moving onto more serious subject matter.

“You don’t need a Ph.D. in political science to see that the world is currently experiencing some growing pains: instantaneous communications have intertwined our economies, consumer aviation has empowered individuals to travel anywhere in the world in a matter of hours and the internet has allowed me the ability to live-stream Liverpool’s preseason matches in Australia,” he said.

“Yet all the while, many of our fellow countrymen and women lack access to these 21st-century amenities, finding themselves unsure about their futures. These parallel trends are felt just as surely in the English Midlands as they are in the American Midwest,” Beck added.

“While many governments continue to turn away from the international community in the face of these challenges, however, organizations such as the International Student House have become vital in bridging the gap between disparate peoples and cultures.”


ISH-DC Global Leadership Awards Co-Chair Didi Cutler talks with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). (Photo: International Student House of Washington, D.C.)

That melting pot of cultures is on display daily at ISH-DC. “Sometimes, I genuinely forget that the person next to me is from Israel, or Mongolia or Venezuela, because at the end of the day we’re a lot more similar than we are different. Ultimately, we’re friends who are driven by a common purpose, and a common desire to fix some of the injustices we have encountered along our paths,” Beck said. “That is why I choose to live at International Student House, because it shows me, each and every day, that there are good people from across the globe motivated by the same things that motivate me to pursue a life of public service.”

Ambassador Darroch mused that he could’ve used such an experience when he was a student.

“But here, I have to make a confession, which is I was really a terrible student. And after I had struggled through my final exams — a degree in zoology, by the way — I did consult a few people around my university about doing some sort of postgraduate study,” he told the audience with a wry grin. “And they said to me, ‘You really need to get a job! You’re not cut out for the academic life. So here I am. I guess it could have worked out worse.”

 


Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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