By Victoria Bauer, Social Media Director
At the International House (iHouse) at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Annie Mbale, senior, business administration, receives guests with open arms and the warmth and welcome that characterize the whole place. Mbale spoke about her involvement in school, the importance of the iHouse in her life, and the asset it could be for many other students.
Mbale came from Malawi to the United States six years ago and has been at UMSL for three years. Her majors are international business and marketing, but that is not enough to keep her busy. Mbale also works at the Recreation and Wellness Center (RWC) and is involved in several student organizations, such as the Pan-African Association, Midwest Model United Nations, and the International Business Club.
Mbale is an iHouse leader, which means she is in charge of the office hours and the events that go on at the iHouse together with Peiyu “Perry” Ji, graduate, information systems, who is from China. However, Mbale’s stories about the iHouse and her involvement tell a tale of dedication to the international and local community that does not stop at just a space to study or engage in a friendly talk.
Mbale recalled her first moments at UMSL and, particularly, at the iHouse vividly. She talked about the group of international students who frequented the house, which was made up of about 20 people. That group helped Mbale find herself at home, and the group remains close-knit. She remembers: “The International House for me was home, and I know it is home for most international students. This was THE home for us. It was exciting to have a home that wasn’t the dorms.”
However, it was not only feeling comfortable in that place that moved Mbale to get involved in the i-House. When she came to the United States for the first time, she was living with an American family, which made the process of adjusting to a new place and culture much easier. Then, Mbale wanted to do the same for others. “[I wanted to] help people to adjust to the American culture, to grow,” she said. Soon enough, she found herself helping her friends, and she thought she could use her desire to get involved on campus.
Once she became an iHouse leader, Mbale started giving advice to those new students who were trying to become successful in this new place. She sees her involvement in other organizations as beneficial to the house. Mbale explained, “This is my way of getting involved. I’m also involved in many organizations. So, that’s the other reason why I feel like [in] this house, [and in] working here, I expose the house to the organizations and I expose the organizations to the house. When students come to the events, they would be like ‘I’m bored’; and I ask ‘What is your major?’ … ‘Where are you from?’” She also maintains that working with organizations helps to promote the iHouse to students who are not acquainted with how it works.
Even though the iHouse name suggests being a place for the international student body, Mbale explained that this is not the case. The iHouse, located across from Benton Hall in North Campus on Natural Bridge, opened its doors in 2010 as a “space for intercultural exchange,” according to the International Student and Scholar Services’ homepage. Mbale’s mindset of dedication is directed to make this a fact.
When talking about events in the iHouse, she recalled a Halloween party in which her friends helped her dress as an African princess with her African outfits. What she really liked about it was that everyone had costumes that were not familiar to everyone else. Every student was willing to explain the history of their costumes and what they meant. Another significant event for the iHouse is the Welcoming Dinner held in the fall, in which new students got to mingle and make new friends.
The iHouse has a packed calendar of events every semester. Mbale explained that their advisor, Rebecca Kehe, is very helpful and is always around to help, since only Mbale and Ji run the entire iHouse. Mbale added that usually a lot of students volunteer and collaborate. “Honestly, I just have to text people. It’s just up to me to ask for help. The Welcoming Dinner was supposed to start at 6 [p.m.] and people were already here at 4 [p.m.]. I didn’t even know what task to give them, but they were here, wanting to help,” she said.
Yet, it is not only about parties. She talked about the spaces of the two-story building, and explained that the top floor is where the leaders live, but the downstairs space — the kitchen, living room, dining room, office space — is open to everyone: “If someone wants to come and watch TV because they don’t have a TV, they can come and do that. … We try to make it so that they don’t miss home that much. They feel like this is their home.” The feeling of “home” was a recurrent topic for Mbale, since her first experiences in this country gave her this gratifying feeling that she wants to share.
The IHouse is set up so that students can come in during office hours and have a home-cooked meal, some tea, or a place to take a nap. They have blankets available for students and a TV ready to help students take a break from studying. Food is also important to enhance that feeling of home. “They can come and cook food from their home, which I think it’s important because if you’re living in Villa or Oak Hall, there are no kitchens, so it’s hard to get adjusted to food,” Mbale said. “That’s one thing that we struggle with as International Students. It’s getting adjusted to American food. For me, everything at home was fresh. … It took me a while.”
Mbale believes that the events at the iHouse would create a greater intercultural exchange if American students frequented it more. She said, “If there’s one thing that international students love is to see, [it is] American students and [to] learn from them. Like, if we have a Halloween event, and [the American students] can explain it to [the international students], [it means a lot to them] because they have no idea. [Or when American students say] ‘This is why we do Thanksgiving. This is the history,’ they like to hear those stories. And I wish more American students would come to our events.”
However, Mbale’s desire goes beyond experiencing holidays. She believes that the iHouse could be a place for cultural encountering and fraternizing . “One thing I want is for American students to understand that it [the iHouse] is open to everyone,” she said.
She said that she believes that in the cultural exchange, “[American students] can learn from us, because we have different perspectives. And we can also learn from them and share culture, because I think that’s the beauty of having this house.”
If students want to get involved in the iHouse, they should not hesitate to stop by at 8026 Natural Bridge Rd, St. Louis, MO, 63121. They can also reach the iHouse leaders through their Facebook page: Umsl IHouse.
The iHouse will host a Karaoke Night on February 24 from 5 to 7 p.m.; an Indian Night, Holi Celebration, on March 10 from 5 to 7 p.m.; a Multicultural Variety Show on April 12 from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Millennium Student Center; an African Night on April 14 from 5 to 7 p.m.; and a Graduation Barbeque on May 12 from 5 to 7 p.m. Other events and ideas are welcome.