The International House of Rhode Island is a nonprofit organization that serves as a community space for Rhode Island’s international students, scholars and visitors alongside their families, according to the organization’s website. Located at 8 Stimson Ave. next to the University’s Swearer Center, the House offers several programs to support the international community in Rhode Island, both for University students and others.
IHRI was conceived in 1963 when Bili and Gil Mason, Providence residents at the time, came into contact with a RISD international student during Thanksgiving break, according to Alex Holt ’01, executive director of IHRI. The Masons quickly realized that many members of the international community, particularly students, were facing feelings of isolation during their time in Providence. Bili and Gil began having weekly and monthly events for the international community, and the House was officially founded.
“The primary mission (of IHRI) … is to have a place which promotes cross-cultural understanding,” Holt said. As a community center, the House fulfills this mission through events and activities connected to food, music, language and art.
“People are getting together for these activities … and forming individual relationships,” he said.
While IHRI is open to the entire international community, it focuses on graduate students, visiting scholars and their families. “There are a couple hundred visiting scholars that come to Brown each year, and often they’re not with a cohort group,” Holt said. “They work with one professor … and they’re socially isolated.”
Often, spouses and partners accompany visiting scholars and do not find support within the University community because they are not affiliated with the school, according to Holt.
“It’s definitely difficult because you’re completely out of your routine. You don’t know where anything is, you don’t know where to start and you don’t know who to ask,” IHRI Program Coordinator Madison Dankocsik said. The House “operates like a foothold in a new community. We can tell you about some people who are in your situation … where to get groceries … or where to find the best restaurant in Providence that will take you back to a memory of what you like eating.”
IHRI also offers programs to ease international community members’ linguistic transitions, according to Dankocsik. These programs are made up of English and foreign language classes, which are often taught by professors from Brown and other universities in the area.
Other programs offered by IHRI include six residences for visiting scholars and their families to stay in and numerous cultural events that connect international students with the local community in Providence, Holt said.
“In November, we did a Thanksgiving event where we matched international students who hadn’t heard of Thanksgiving … with local families to (help them) experience an American Thanksgiving meal,” Dankocsik said. She also emphasized the willingness of community members to host multiple students.
Several members of IHRI’s staff told The Herald about the benefits of having an international community space for Rhode Islanders. “There are different people here who care about … meeting people from different countries and promoting cross-cultural understanding,” Holt said.
“Individuals bring the world to Providence, and you have the opportunity to see the world here … That’s how the community benefits from it,” said John Walker, director of operations at IHRI.
The opportunity to engage with the local community and find other members of the international community with shared experiences is what drew Delfina Vernet Ayerza to IHRI. Ayerza, who is from Argentina, moved to Providence in early 2020 with her husband, who is pursuing his PhD in economics at the University. Ayerza heard about IHRI through her husband's colleagues.
“When I came here, I was really alone,” Ayerza said. IHRI “was not only a good place to practice my English, but also to meet new people who are in the same situation and experiencing similar things.”
Today, Ayerza co-leads IHRI’s Rhode Island International Spouses Partners and Friends Association.
“The idea is to welcome new spouses, partners and international visitors to Brown,” Ayerza said. The group began meeting in person last August and continues to do so every month to share their stories over meals and games.
IHRI returned to in-person operations after facing the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the pandemic, “it was much quieter because a lot of temporary visitors just weren’t coming … and there were people who were stuck here … who couldn’t get back,” Holt said. The appeal of IHRI’s physical community space was lost in the Zoom format, Holt added.
Despite COVID-19 limiting the events that IHRI could host, Walker believes that the community bonds formed at the House remained strong throughout the pandemic. “The friendships that are developed at International House … are quite strong, and people want to come back,” he said.
Some of Ayerza’s favorite memories at IHRI were also formed during the pandemic. “Even though (we are) on Zoom, we are creating this kind of bond … and people are willing to … open up,” she said.
Ayerza specifically recalled a poetry event in her virtual English class on the topic of personal identity, which she said will always remain special to her.
As the House transitions back to in-person operations, its staff and members are excited for future events. Along with weekly potluck lunches, Dankocsik is looking forward to a Persian New Year celebration March 26.
“The International House has partnered with the Iranian Association of Rhode Island … and it’s just going to be a really cool afternoon of dancing and celebrating the vernal equinox and getting ready for spring,” she said.
Holt also spoke about the House’s plans to partner with the University to host a talk in April with an Afghan arts group that fled the Taliban.
Efforts of collaboration between the IHRI and the University have been welcomed by the Swearer Center, Ashley Greene ’09, director of community partnership at the Swearer Center, wrote in an email to The Herald.
In the past, the Swearer Center has partnered with IHRI through its student engagement programs, Greene wrote. These programs help “provide capacity” to partner organizations like IHRI by connecting them with students interested in filling service roles. At the same time, students are introduced “to real world learning opportunities that allow them to connect with members of the broader community, and to learn and apply competencies that will aid them in their life and work,” Greene added.
IHRI also plans to host its first Bonner Community Fellow from the University’s class of 2025. The fellows will help “with communications, social media, helping organize the House … pitching events that we want to do … or just starting to network with members and volunteers that are there,” Dankocsik said.
The Bonner Fellowships Program will be another step in solidifying the University’s relationship with IHRI, Greene wrote.
“At the Swearer Center and at Brown, more generally, we recognize the importance of creating spaces where people from diverse backgrounds and cultures can be welcomed and celebrated,” Greene added.
For Ayerza, the IHRI is the embodiment of this multicultural space.
“I feel really grateful to the International House … They are really welcoming and warm,” Ayerza said. “IHRI tries to create a home away from home … That is what International House means to me, and I'm sure (that’s what it means) for all the people in there.”