A Semester Like No Other: An I-House Berkeley Spring 2020 Recap

June 29, 2020 Chan'Cellore Makanjuola

With the school semester dramatically disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic, most colleges and universities moved to online instruction, with students having no choice but to adjust to the changes. Given the lack of in-person classes and social distancing measures in place, quarantining while studying became a new balancing act.

At International House, UC Berkeley, a place known for fostering cultural understanding and celebrating different nationalities, community staples such as Coffee Hour and eating in the Dining Commons were halted. With countries closing borders as a way to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, many I-House residents returned to their countries of origin. As the hallways got quieter by the day, the I-House staff came together to form new virtual activities to keep residents engaged. Here’s a recap of the Spring 2020 semester at I-House:

January

I-House got its year off to the right start with a New Resident Orientation retreat to Walker Creek Ranch. The two-day trip involved hiking, group activities, good food, a bonfire, and a chance for residents to learn more about each other and how to make the most of their I-House experience. The final day ended with a trip to the beach in Point Reyes.

January 2020 New Resident Orientation retreat photo.

More New Year celebrations were underway as I-House Dining hosted a special Lunar New Year themed dinner which featured Lion Dance performances from San Francisco-based dance group Lion Dance Me. The meal included traditional East Asian Cuisine and desserts as well as special decorations honoring the new year.

February

With January filled with adventure and new beginnings, February doubled the fun starting with Super Bowl Sunday. This was the 54th annual Super Bowl, a deeply-rooted American tradition, where those not able to go to the actual game sit around their TV with family and/or friends to root for a team or watch the highly anticipated half-time show. Residents gathered around the TV in the Great Hall to watch the game. A projector was set up in the Dining Commons as well so people could eat and watch the event.

I-House also hosted it’s Sunday Supper event in mid-February with “Winter Soirée” as this year’s theme. For the price of meal swipe, residents, dressed to the nines, enjoyed a talent show featuring their fellow I-House friends.

Sunday Supper Winter Soirée. Photo by Lori A. Cheung

For Valentine’s Day, the Program Office put together a match-making activity that would help resident’s find their Valentine. To those that weren’t able to find their one true love through the app, they were at least comforted by a serenade from Cal’s Mariachi Band, invited by I-House resident Benny Corona. The band played a few songs on the front steps to a cheerful crowd.

Two weeks later, the I-House dining team hosted a Black History month dinner, featuring traditional southern food from fried chicken, to sweet potato pie. The menu was designed by sous chef Raymond Sharp, a Bay Area native with southern roots.  African artwork aligned the buffet room, most of which belonged to the mother of I-House cook Morgan Townsend. Read more about the dinner in our February I-House blog post.

To round out the month, I-House residents enjoyed a special trip to the Chase Center in San Francisco to watch a basketball game between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.

March

Each March I-House participates in an annual “Big Give” event to raise funds for scholarships and operations. Alumni such as Nancy Tivol proposed price-matching donations where residents and friends of I-House could donate to unlock a certain gift giving amount. Residents from and those on the leadership committee participated in promotional photos for the event and committee members hosted a raffle the night before to encourage more donations for a chance to win fun prizes. In total, I-House raised nearly $10,000 in its Big Give event.

I-House “Big Thanks for Big Give” video by Chan’Cellore Makanjuola. Photos by Friedrich Wegmann and Keegan Houser.

With Spring break plans on people’s minds, the fast spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. and overseas began to impact how many carried out their social lives. On March 13th, UC Berkeley officially shutdown in-person classes and social distancing measures were strictly enforced. Gatherings were limited to ten people or less and people were encouraged to remain at least six feet apart. For the first time in decades, the Dining Commons closed its in-person dining, and residents were given to-go boxes to eat in their rooms or outside while maintaining a safe distance from each other.

To keep the I-House spirit alive, the Program Office hosted its first ever virtual coffee hour event, open to all the 2019-2020 I-House members, including those who were back in their hometowns. Residents tuned in from around the world to participate and share how they were coping during quarantine.

The Program Office also created a platform called “I-House Snapshots.” According to Program Office Director Valerie Ong, the program was “put together during the early days of COVID-19” and “created to celebrate I-House and to highlight the importance of vibrant communities during these difficult times.” Residents interested in participating were asked to submit a photo special to them and include a short message about its significance which were then put into a compilation. You can find snapshot stories from residents here.

I-House Snapshots from residents part of a compilation series. Courtesy of the I-House Program Office.

Another platform unveiled by the Program Office during quarantine was “Under the Dome,” which was a continuation of their “From All Corners” podcast series. According to I-House Program Coordinator Alicia López, “Under the Dome” was “created to help us feel the community of the I-House dome — even if residents had left I-House already and were in different places across the globe.” The podcast featured fifteen residents “sharing I-House memories, laughter, and stories of coping during quarantine,” she said. You can listen to the “From All Corners” and “Under the Dome” series on Spotify, Apple Podcast, and Google Podcast.

 Residents featured in the “Under the Dome” podcast Series. Courtesy of the I-House Program Office. 

April

After spending weeks adjusting to the strict social distancing measures and being quarantined in their rooms, some residents decided to use their free time to help those in need. Four residents launched a platform known as SF Food Friends, now SF Community Support, in late March as a way to help those at risk of contracting the virus get access to food and other necessities through the help of volunteers. The team officially started dispatching food package deliveries in mid-April. Their efforts were featured in our April I-House blog post.

 Clockwise top left: SF Food Friend members Marie Rajon Bernard, Toni Adetayo, Nitasha Goyal, and Marcel Schaack. Courtesy of SF Food Friends.

To commemorate a rather peculiar yet enlightening semester, the Program Office hosted an I-House “Bon Voyage” virtual program “to celebrate and close the academic year, regardless of how it ended due to [COVID-19],” according to Ong. I-House 2019-2020 residents tuned in from around the world to listen to watch musical performances from their fellow residents. Among the performances was a virtual rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

May

Before the semester can be considered complete, students must submit their final projects, theses, or complete final exams. Program Office staff put together a motivational video featuring I-House PAs and Resident Council members that encouraged residents to make it to the finish line.

Lastly, a tradition that wasn’t able to be held in-person this year was the Final Snap. Hosted by the program office, the event is where current residents gather on the front steps of I-House and take a group photo to commemorate the end of the school year and their time at I-House if they won’t be returning. Despite the COVID-19 restrictions keeping us apart, the final snap photo was able to come together through virtual means. Over one hundred current and former residents in the 2019-2020 class submitted photos for the virtual final snap and it was put together by yours truly.

While the semester didn’t go as originally planned, residents showed their ability to adapt and make the most of the changes. Whether it was sharing stories of quarantine, having dinner meetings through zoom, or virtual coffee hours, the I-House community stayed, and continues to remain, strong.

June

Although the 2019-2020 school year is over, some residents continued their stay at I-House for the summer. Due to the rising cases of COVID-19 across the U.S., efforts to stop the spread have become stricter. In mid-June, the state of California made masks mandatory for wearing in public as a way to ensure public safety. Knowing the difficulty for some residents to obtain masks, one I-House alumna wanted to do something to help.

In early June, Grace Hong (IH 2016-2018) joined forces with 45 other Taiwanese alumni from I-House Berkeley and I-House New York and raised money to provide current residents and staff with masks to help them stay safe from COVID-19 exposure. In a statement to I-House, the alumni wrote:

“While the pandemic is severe and we are forced to stay home, none of you is left behind. With the I-House spirit in mind, we want to do our best to make you feel our care and support from the other side of the Pacific and strengthen international friendships. Together, we will go through this.”

I-House residents and employees wearing masks sent by I-House alumni from Taiwan.

Now, as June comes to an end, the focus on racial inequality and justice reform has been at the forefront of national conversations with young people leading the way for change. As I-House prepares for a new semester, its foundation around inclusion still holds true today. As I-House Berkeley Executive Director Hans Giesecke stated:

“More than anything, these events reinforce in my own mind the essential need for places such as International House Berkeley, whose mission is to stand for intercultural harmony, civic responsibility, and bringing justice for those who have been dehumanized and, in many cases, murdered. We will continue to stand for these values as we move forward, and we will continue to focus on challenging ourselves to find the most effective ways to use our voices in service of positive social change.”

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