Black History Month: Celebrating African Americans

Black History Month celebrates the legacy, contributions, and achievements of African Americans. It is observed every year in the month of February in the United States and Canada as African American History Month, and as African and Caribbean History Month in the United Kingdom. President Gerald Ford first officially recognized the importance of the Month in 1976 and declared February as National Black History Month.

History of Black History Month

Black History Month originated during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a cultural and literary movement which celebrated the achievements and contributions of African Americans. During this period, many scholars and activists began collating and publishing works documenting the history and accomplishments of African Americans. Carter G. Woodson, one such activist who was widely seen as the father of Black History Month, founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915. Woodson later went on to establish the Negro History Week in 1926. Negro History Week was observed every year during the second week of February, remembering the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, prominent figures in African American history. The observance was subsequently expanded to the entire month of February in 1976 and was known as Black History Month.

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Overcoming Culture Shock and Embracing Cultural Differences

For many of us, this is the first time we are living away from our home country and living with people of varying cultural backgrounds. Regardless of how much we thought we were prepared to stay in a new country with a diverse set of people, cultural shock is real. It is challenging to connect with people of other cultures, accept their practices, and form friendships. This could be owing to the lack of awareness, or it could be the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. While it might be overwhelming to begin with, we all get through it sooner or later. Here are fifteen tips to ease the process of accepting differences and enjoying your stay in a new country.

1. Don’t be afraid to communicate and ask questions. It is preferrable to clearly and politely communicate than make assumptions or tolerate unpleasant experiences. For example, if you are unsure about the contents of a food item, don’t hesitate to ask details about the ingredients.

2. Be open to new experiences but don’t feel afraid to say no when uncomfortable. Don’t feel like you need to do things to fit in. It is okay to not give in to the peer pressure. However, that does not mean that you should not push yourself to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. For instance, it might be enjoyable to attend an evening concert as a new experience, however it might be a stretch to spend all weekend at a music festival. You might not be comfortable staying overnight in an unfamiliar place. It is okay to say no to the music festival.

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Winter Break Memories

While this post is about my experience during the Winter break, I must thank my friends who made it worthwhile. This break was my first away from home. Normally, I would have traveled back to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with my people. The friends I made both at I-House and beyond helped make my holidays memorable.

Hiking and Benevolent Berkeley Breeze

Before school officially closed for break, I had an evening walk with a resident friend to clear our minds from the rigorous academic work. We strolled slightly up the Berkeley hills, encountering friendly squirrels, wild turkeys, and many birds and insects. I love the squirrels, in particular, and the trees surrounding I-House are home to many. I do not only perceive them as cute but also quite fearless. I like their colorful fur and how it blends with tree trunks when they play hide and seek. The evening wind wasn’t rough, but mild. I could feel the benevolent breeze caress my skin. The hills, the clement weather, and the call of flying birds retreating from the setting sun reminded me of my home in Nigeria. I stood to watch the sunset. The golden and glorious ball sinking down below the horizon brought nostalgic moments for me. This was my favorite part of the day. The day arrives with a lot of hustle and bustle, work and stress. The evening and sunset remind us of all of the need to take a break from everything. I could see and hear the birds disappear into the clouds. Life could be so simple and sophisticated still.

Well, the winding paths of the forest could be misleading for first-time hikers, I warned my friend, so we made sure we didn’t go farther into the woods. At the end of the walk, we ended up taking deep breaths to take in as much fresh air as we could. Sunset is a time of reflection and a time to count blessings. Studying and living in Berkeley are a big part of my blessings.

New Year’s Eve and Colorful Fireworks

The last day of 2022 was a rainy one. The rain ran down my window, tap-tapping on the glass. I could sit all day listening to it. Just that it was terribly cold, and I and other I-House residents wished it would stop raining. Many had plans to go to San Francisco to see the fireworks and count down to the new year. I had jokingly sung a nursery rhyme, wishing the rain to go away. Maybe it helped because the rain stopped just before evening. The cold remained, but the Universe somehow listened.

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I Have a Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday celebrated every year on the third Monday of January. This year it was celebrated on 16 January. It honors the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King. The day not only symbolizes King’s legacy but also promotes non-violent advocacy for rights and encourages individuals to join public service. It continues to represent hope and healing in America.

King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta. He was named Michael King Jr. at birth. In 1934, when his father travelled to Germany and was inspired by a Protestant Reformation leader, Martin Luther King Sr. changed his own and his young son’s name to Martin Luther King. King came from a family of Baptist Ministers. He enrolled in college at the age of fifteen and pursued a degree in Sociology. Although he was uninterested in following the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great grandfather, he was convinced otherwise by the president of his college, a respected theologian. He was ordained before graduating from college. He subsequently attended Divinity school in Pennsylvania and later went on to pursue a Ph.D. He received his Ph.D. degree in 1955.

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Sharing the Light, One Candle at a Time

Here is a short poem I wrote to start today’s post, I call it, This Light.

This light of peace I pass to you
Pass this to another behind or by your side
May the world see the beauty of our love
Let my light shine forth in all honesty
May your light shine forth in all honesty

This light of happiness I pass to you
Pass to another behind or by the side
May the world dance to our laughter and joy
Let my light shine and give hope
May your light shine and give hope

This light of love I pass to you
Pass to another behind or by the side
For all who have lost faith in the human spirit
Let this light shine differently or together
May the world see in us, hope and love

Excitement and Anticipation

Sunday morning was a bit dramatic. Dramatic because the residents anticipated their first Sunday Supper. From my window, it was sunny, and I could hear the birds sing cheerfully. As I walked down the 6th-floor hallway, I could see the excitement on people’s faces. The much-anticipated Sunday Supper has come! 

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Ubuntu – I Am Because We Are

International House is a laboratory for a new kind of experiment – the day-to-day practice of international fellowship among men and women.
– John D. Rockefeller Jr., I-House Benefactor

It’s up to us, the residents, to continue building on this legacy of love, understanding, justice, and peace.
– Okechukwu Iroegbu, I-House resident 2022-2023

A popular saying in Africa goes: Between true friends even water drunk together is sweet enough. I’ve dined with residents from different countries and each time I see them, I consider them family. Reflecting on both the proverb and quotes above, I found the mission and vision of the founders of I-House aligned with my belief in friendship, cooperation, and fellowship. I’ll add that there is beauty in diversity because our different shades make the I-House experience even more colorful. Don’t you think? 

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Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation

We are happy to share another post in our “Did you know?” series by I-House Program Assistant Anusha Thotakura.

Pumpkins carved by I-House residents

With Halloween just around the corner, carving pumpkins, trick or treating, and costume parties must all look very exciting. While the festivities are thrilling, it is very important that we are mindful of taking someone else’s culture without informed intent and credit when deciding what costume to wear.

While cultural appreciation is most welcome, we must be mindful not to appropriate the culture. It is an easy line to cross, however with some effort on our end, it is not too difficult to maintain a healthy balance and enjoy the festival. It then becomes enjoyable not only to us but to everyone around us.

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Ten Rules for Disability-Inclusive Language

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The aim is to showcase policies and practices to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities within workplaces. We are happy to share “Ten rules for disability-inclusive language” written by I-House resident Srianusha Thotakura from Bengaluru, India. She prefers to go by the name Anusha. Her pronouns are she/her/hers. She is currently an LL.M. student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and a Program Assistant at I-House.

Anusha previously worked as a social justice researcher after receiving her law degree from O.P. Jindal Global University, India. She is very passionate about disability justice, sexual and reproductive health and rights, anti-carceral politics, gender rights, and labor rights. She is an avid reader, amateur Carnatic music singer, and food enthusiast. Anusha is a person with a disability. She acquired her disability about four years ago when she became blind. She believes in disability inclusion through education and awareness creation.

Guest author Anusha Thotakura, I-House Program Assistant

Did You Know?

One of the most important ways to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities is by using inclusive language. There is a lot of ambiguity and confusion as to what terminology is appropriate and acceptable with respect to disability.

Ten rules for disability-inclusive language:

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Introducing I-House Resident Events

Hello everyone! I hope you all had a restful summer and are feeling recharged for the upcoming school year. If you’re a new resident, welcome to I-House! For those who may not know what to expect, here is a comprehensive guide to some of the amazing events we have in store for you and some highlights from last year’s events!

I-House Welcome Week

At the beginning of the year, Robertson Center for Intercultural Leadership & Programs hosts a “Welcome Week,” where residents have the chance to get to know each other, as well as learn about all the fun that Berkeley and the Bay Area have to offer! Last year, I really enjoyed meeting other residents during our trip to the BAMPFA, our ice skating event in Oakland, and on our hike to the Big C. Being an international student who had moved to the U.S. for the first time, on top of having spent my first year of college at home online with little to no social interaction, it was refreshing to be able to talk with others who had shared these experiences with me. I made some of my closest friends during Welcome Week and we still reminisce over our memorable first interactions, from slipping on the ice together to speculating over the fastest way to hike down a hill. These events are hosted by our lovely I-House Resident Assistants (RAs), who also do an amazing job of organizing various floor socials throughout the school year, where you can further get to know your floormates! 

Last year’s Welcome Week featured a BAMPFA visit, ice skating at Oakland and a Big C hike! Thank you Vighnesh N. for the hiking photos!

On August 24 there will be a mandatory Town Hall Meeting from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., in our Chevron Auditorium, as well as a Coffee Hour Social from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. at the Great Hall. We will also be hosting overnight New Student Orientation retreats from August 26 to 27 and August 27 to 28 at Green Mountain Retreat where you can make new friends and enjoy the great outdoors! Registration is open until August 19 and you can learn more and sign up at ihouse.berkeley.edu/retreats. More information about Welcome Week will be posted soon on the official 2022-23 Resident Group on I-House Berkeley Connect and the Resident Facebook group

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New to Berkeley? SWiiFTly make new Friends!

As a former I-House resident, I remember the rush of emotions from the excitement about a fresh start and the opportunity to meet new people in the US. I had just landed at my dream destination, filled with excitement for adventure, but I had so many questions. “Where do I start? What do the locals do? How can I meet people and tap into the culture?” Google definitely couldn’t answer that one. As a student traveler, I’ve often struggled to answer those questions due to the lack of accessible local expertise. This struggle inevitably led to a sense of frustration which I called travel FOMO. In moving to Berkeley, I was fortunate enough to have the I-House community, but not everyone gets the privilege to live at International House.

Personally experiencing this travel FOMO is what inspired me to team up with Max Monange and our Berkeley Skydeck team to create SWiiFT – a platform that connects travelers with locals to swiftly make new friendships abroad. Think about it: when was the last time you randomly connected with a local while you were abroad? For members of the SWiiFT community, that is the highlight of many trips. Might it be on a night out exploring Berlin’s nightlife, during a cultural expedition in Rome, or trying to find Indonesia’s finest surf waves, most travel lovers have had an encounter with a stranger abroad that changed the course of their trip for the better. On many occasions, those strangers have become life-long friends. The SWiiFT team has assembled a community of like-minded travelers and locals who thrive on travel’s inherent power to bring unlikely pairs together, and we’re launching an app to facilitate the process for our community. Our value proposition is simple: make local friends abroad and experience the best that any city has to offer thanks to your local’s expertise – all for free. We are excited to invite the I-House community to join before our launch in August!

Meet the SWiiFT Team

Back row, from left: Samuel Ruiperez-Campillo (me), Community Co-Lead; Aayushi Sanghi, Product lead; John Thomson, Finance Lead;
Front row, from left: Shanna Fitschzang, Marketing Intern; Max Monange, CEO; Jasmine King, Community Co-Lead

The SWiiFT app

Joining the SWiiFT community is easy! Take a short personality test and fill out a personalized traveler profile. That’s all the SWiiFT app needs to give you suggestions on which locals you’re most likely to be compatible with during your next trip. Our defining goal is to match the right users together. And our compatibility algorithm was designed to do exactly that. Combine the excitement of travel, new local friends, and their expertise, and your trip can’t go wrong. It’s never been that swift to make friends abroad!

Feeling bored in your hometown? Reverse the experience and become a local. Our app offers dual usability in a single click! You’ll meet travelers with compatible interests, personalities, and profiles visiting your city. Think about showing some Cal Bears what makes your hometown special! We enable our locals to expand their network of international friends and provide them with the opportunity to share the wonders of their home cities with the rest of the world.

On top of facilitating connections with locals abroad, the SWiiFT app acts as a social network for its traveler community. Picture this: You meet a witty local in Dublin and the two of you end up having a crazy pub crawl experience. Am I the only one this has happened to? Can’t be! Share your experience with the rest of the community on our dedicated feed page, in the form of a blog or picture post! Unlike traditional social media, the SWiiFT feed page was designed to be a safe social space for travelers and locals, to highlight new friendships and adventures from the community, in line with our core values at SWiiFT.

If all of that wasn’t enough, you can also use SWiiFT to help you plan your next trips. Looking to go to France next week? Just zoom into the Paris map to check out members of the community there. You’ll be able to start selecting your favorite locals even before having set foot in the City of Lights! Looking for a specific experience during your trip? Find a local with expertise! Filter locals by selecting one of SWiiFT’s five travel modes: food & drink, daylight city exploration, nightlife, cultural discovery, or group adventure. Not picky? Stay in free-mode and go for an improvised experience with a local. All in all, the app caters to your needs as a traveler. It’s truly personalized to the user. All you have to do is to be ready to meet awesome locals excited to share the true essence of their city with you.

Every user on the SWiiFT app has a verified profile, together with ratings and reviews to keep the platform a safe environment for its community. As the community scales up, the product team has additional safety features up its sleeve that they will be releasing to make sure every meeting experience goes as smoothly as possible, all while ensuring quality time.

The SWiiFT Team and the International House

One of the beauties of our team is that it is 100% UC Berkeley-made! The core team is a melting pot of five graduate students, from four different nationalities, who speak six different languages, and collectively have studied in eight different countries. What do we have in common? We’re all avid travelers who are passionate about sparking friendships between travelers and locals.

A couple of months into starting my Master’s at UC Berkeley, I met Max, who had laid down the foundation for SWiiFT and the SWiiFT app based on his life experiences. His stories were amusing and captivating! After having lived on three different continents and traveled to more than 40 countries during his teenage years, Max has built a network of international friendships from his experiences abroad and is now fortunate enough to have friends all over the globe. I resonated with him in many ways because of my diverse international background, having studied in three different countries, and frequently lived with the many problems that SWiiFT plans to solve. Together, we founded SWiiFT with a team of engineers and Max as CEO.

“Wherever I travel now, the odds are that I will have a couple of friends to take me out, show me around and have fun with. I rarely have to deep-plan my trips anymore. I just know I’ll have truly authentic experiences and lots of fun because I’ll be with my local friends. Our goal at SWiiFT is to give every traveler the opportunity to experience new destinations in that same manner.”

Max Monange

Max (right) with a local friend in San Diego

While living in the International House, I felt inspired by the values of respect and multiculturalism fostered in the community. Thus, the SWiiFT team decided to offer I-House residents the SWiiFT experience to help them make the most out of their time in the US.

What’s next? 

After spending the summer in the renowned startup accelerator program SkyDeck, SWiiFT will be releasing its app on the UC Berkeley campus in the fall. The team will be specifically focused on helping incoming Cal students find new local friends in Berkeley and San Francisco. Before you know it, SWiiFT will be coming to your city too!

In focusing on the incoming students at Cal, specifically international students, we thought that I-House residents would benefit, given the overlap in our values. This has been a great opportunity for us to test our value proposition of providing new students a genuinely local experience around Cal. Our first campus event was a hit! I-House residents loved it! If you or anyone else that you know is interested, our next I-House event will be on August 19. Be on the lookout! You don’t want to miss this next one!

If you’re a traveler and you love meeting new friends abroad, join the SWiiFT community. You can follow us on social media @swiift.app (Instagram / TikTok) to check out the awesome local tips we regularly post, SWiiFT (LinkedIn), to find out more about our launch events, or simply join their waitlist to download our app when it comes out this fall.  

And don’t forget… travel the right way, experience with locals.

Max and the I-House students getting to know some of the UC Berkeley traditions.
Our locals meet I-House travelers and show them their favorite spots on campus.
Some of the I-House summer residents on an I-House campus experience with SWiiFT locals.

Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or contact us on instagram @swiift.app.

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