New International House director to step up cross-cultural training, spread the ‘international bug’

Hans Giesecke caught what he calls the “international bug” when he and his wife and three children left their U.S. comfort zone to live in Germany, Austria and Greece. Now, the new executive director of UC Berkeley’s International House wants others to catch and spread it, too.

New I-House executive director Hans Giesecke chats with students

“There is indeed something quite marvelous about viewing the world as a virtually endless stretch of places to couchsurf,” Giesecke quipped to his audience at a recent reception at International House, now better known as I-House. (View a YouTube video of his remarks here.) The stately Spanish colonial at the top of Bancroft Way is more than just a “dorm with a dome,” he emphasized, but a center where lifelong cross-cultural knowledge and friendships begin.

Giesecke, 56, who most recently served as president of Anatolia College in Thessaloniki, Greece, is warming up as the fifth director of I-House. The residential community of some 600 undergraduate and graduate UC Berkeley students, currently from 65 countries, was launched in 1930 to break down cultural barriers between overseas and U.S. students.

An Oregon-born son of German immigrants, Giesecke hopes to recruit more alumni to become “scholarship builders” who pay I-House room and board expenses for exceptional students from around the world, including from the United States, who otherwise could not afford to study at UC Berkeley.

In addition, Giesecke and his staff are launching more initiatives to provide intercultural training for students and staff, including an intensive five-month “Intercultural Leadership” certificate program for residents. Ongoing I-House-sponsored projects include a half-day workshop on intercultural literacy for staff and a popular 4-unit course for students called “Navigating Cultures.”

“While I-House has exposed tens of thousands of students to global experiences since 1930, only in the past few years have we engaged residents -– and now students across campus, UC employees and even corporate clients like Google and Chevron -– in how to navigate cultural differences and expand their personal and professional horizons,” said Shanti Corrigan, director of development and alumni relations for I-House.

Giesecke with I-House alumnus and supporter Irving Tragen

Founded by New York YMCA official Harry Edmonds with a $1.8 million donation from John D. Rockefeller Jr., UC Berkeley’s I-House established itself as a pioneer in breaking down institutional and personal barriers between people of different nationalities, races and ethnicities.

Famous I-House alumni include U.S. physicist and Nobelist Owen Chamberlain, Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, U.S. economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Japanese diplomat Sadako Ogata, Crown Prince of Norway Haakon Magnus, and California Gov. Jerry Brown.

As Joe Lurie, I-House executive director from 1988 to 2007, likes to point out, “I-House was the first international, multiracial co-ed living community west of New York, and there was quite an uproar in the community … People were afraid the sexes and races would ‘mingle.’”

And mingle they did. Irving Tragen met his wife at I-House during World War II. And despite being classified as ineligible for overseas military service due to a hearing impediment, the feisty San Francisco native sought and found foreign adventure -– at I-House.

In the early 1940s, I-House residents were spread among four wartime-vacated fraternity houses along Piedmont Avenue. He recalls sharing his lodgings with two Chinese, two Icelandic and three dozen Central and South American students, and relished every minute.

Ethnic-art importers Dick and Beany Wezelman with Kenyan scholar Selena Shieunda Makana

“They were my friends for life. It was a transformative experience,” said Tragen, a 90-year-old retired diplomat and former ambassador, UC Berkeley law school alumnus and longtime I-House supporter who attended the reception to welcome Giesecke.

Also at the reception were I-House alumnus Kwei Ü and his wife, Michele. They created the Adrian Hao Yin Ü Gateway Fellowship in honor of a son who died in infancy that supports mainly doctoral students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with UC Berkeley tuition, fees and full room and board at I-House.

Not all reception guests were I-House alumni. Berkeley art dealers Dick and Beany Wezelman, who import handicrafts from Africa, Nepal, Thailand, India and Pakistan, are donating money for the room and board of an African scholar.

“Africa has given us so much, we want to give back,” said Beany Wezelman, another proud carrier of the “international bug.”