On a cold, mid-winter evening, a small group of strangers were warming up to each other at Harrisburg’s International House.
Sharing names, occupations and smiles, they sloughed off their winter layers and piled around a table. Plates of vindaloo, naan and basmati rice sat before them. It was time for the “Signature Series,” a free event, open to the public, featuring a speaker from a different country each month. On this particular Thursday, Darahas Sontyana took the stage to discuss his native country of India.
Sontyana, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1999. He showed the audience a PowerPoint and talked about India’s culture and traditions, but much of his talk was about his bi-cultural experience growing up.
“At home, I was Indian, but everywhere else, I was American,” he explained to the room.
Sontyana’s story is representative of the venue where his talk took place.
I-House, as it’s commonly called, is where cultures can’t help but intermingle. It’s where a Chinese student and a Danish student can live right next door to one another or an American student and a Korean student can become friends playing ping pong. It’s where college students from all over the world participate together in local sporting events, festivals and museum visits.
“I can experience cultures from all around the world without having to take a plane,” said Verley Valérius, a 24-year-old Haitian student who’s a junior at Penn State Harrisburg.
A project of Harristown Development Co., I-House is one in a family of 17 institutions across the globe that operate under the same name and mission. All are independent nonprofits that provide long- and short-term living accommodations for students in a fun and friendly intercultural environment.
Since its 2002 conception, the Harrisburg location has hosted students from 94 nations, going through two major expansions across three complexes downtown. Its accommodation numbers have multiplied by a factor of more than 10, climbing from 14 to 150 beds.
“And all you have to be to live at the I-House is a student,” said manager Kevin Markey.
Americans are welcome, too, he said. In fact, when he lived and worked at the house as a resident assistant, he made friends across the globe, two of whom were in his wedding party.
As manager, Markey now hosts the events that helped him meet these friends — dinners, movie nights, ice cream socials. He also helps residents check items off their traveling bucket lists, like visiting New York City and seeing Niagara Falls. His colleague, Agata Czopek, director of international programs, estimates that I-House has hosted around 9,000 students over its 15 years.
Each year, Czopek travels to more than a dozen countries, recruiting students to stay at the house for a seasonal work program with local employers. She also helps the students transition to American life. She herself came to America from Poland at age 24, speaking very little English and dealing with everything from homesickness and stress to communication issues.
The connections built during programs last a lifetime, Czopek said. So, next year, she wants to expand the impact of I-House beyond the immediate neighborhood. She hopes to start up a dinner club with American families.
Ultimately, Czopek is motivated, she said, by the experiences students have in Harrisburg, which can change their perceptions of Americans and Americans’ perceptions of them.
“It makes you realize there is so much more that we have in common than could divide us,” she said.
For more information about International House and its programs, visit www.I-Househbg.org or call 717-724-2846.