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International Student House Honors Senators for Promoting Power of Education

By Anna Gawel

Bipartisanship is almost unheard of these days, but it does exist — and it was on display at the 2018 Global Leadership Awards on Nov. 14 held at the International Student House (ISH-DC), which honored Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont for their support of educational and cultural exchange programs.

In accepting the award, Leahy praised his Republican counterpart for backing initiatives such as the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program, joking that he hopes his praise “doesn’t hurt her back home.”

But on a more serious note, Leahy lamented that, “We’re in a time of increasing xenophobia and religious and racial and ethnic conflict. We need the International Student House. We need international exchange programs. We have never needed them more. We cannot build fortress America. We have to welcome people from all over the world.”

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ISH-DC scholar Varsha Thebo of Georgetown University, right, introduces honoree Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) at the 2018 Global Leadership Awards hosted by the International Student House of Washington, D.C. Photo: Skewed Patella Photo by Derek Parks

“I don’t have to convince anyone here the role of the International Student House,” Leahy continued. “In fact, in its 80-plus-year history, some 15,000 students from more than 140 countries have stayed here — 15,000 is more than all but three communities in my home state of Vermont.”

ISH-DC, founded in 1936, was initially located on New Hampshire Avenue and home to only 18 students. It sought to ease the transition of international students arriving in Washington for undergraduate and graduate studies. It also served as a refuge for students of color, both local and international, who were effectively shut out of rooming houses due to de facto segregation.

In 1946, the organization purchased a Tudor-style mansion on R Street, constructed an adjacent building in 1967 and two decades later purchased a third building to expand its capacity. Today, the three-building complex in the heart of Dupont Circle is home to 100 students at a time, or 300 over the course of a year. Notable alumni include a former Norwegian finance minister, a member of Indonesia’s parliament and Geir Haarde, Iceland’s former prime minister who now serves as ambassador in Washington and who attended the Nov. 14 gala dinner.

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Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) lamented that we live in an era of xenophobia. “We cannot build fortress America,” he said. “We need international exchange programs now more than ever.” Photo: Skewed Patella Photo by Derek Parks

The diversity of the students and scholars who live at ISH-DC could be seen in the residents who participated in the dinner, including the two speakers: Jan Langle of Germany and Varsha Thebo of Pakistan.

ISH-DC is “truly the place to be in the city where legislation is passed,” said Langle, a law student at The George Washington University, who described living in the house as “experiencing the world without traveling.”

“Residents have such different backgrounds, upbringings and religions. There is a unique spirit of community – a spirit founded on curiosity, open-mindedness and, most importantly, respect,” Langle said. “If respect allows us to embrace diversity, while becoming more aware of our commonalities, then it’s true that ISH-DC is a miniature of this globe and its people. I think it truly has positive implications for the future of our planet.”

Education also opens people’s eyes to a world that they may never have known even existed. That was the case for ISH scholar Varsha Thebo.

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Ambassador of Portugal Domingos Fezas Vital, Isabel Vital, Lubka Stoytcheva, Walter Cutler and Ambassador of Bulgaria Tihomir Stoytchev attend the ISH-DC 2018 Global Leadership Awards.

“Until I was 17, I lived in a small village in Pakistan where girls were not permitted to go to school,” Thebo told the audience. “I wanted to study, my father wanted me to study, but there was only so much we could do, so he started acquiring some books for me so I could start teaching myself.”

“One lucky day when I was 19, some [World Health Organization] doctors funded by the U.S. State Department came to my village to offer vaccinations. They only spoke English. I volunteered to translate, listening to English spoken for the first time. They took me to Karachi, which is the capital of the province I come from, where I was tested and shortly thereafter offered an opportunity for an education at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta,” Thebo said. “I graduated with honors last year.”

“It is through education that I learned to unlearn the single stories I was told about a world I had never even seen before,” she continued. “It was through education that I then started small-scale study circles for young girls who had the same life as me in the rural areas of Pakistan and in Cambodia.”

“And it’s also because of education that this house has given me the honor to introduce one of my personal heroes,” Thebo said of Collins, praising the senator’s efforts to expand access to education at all levels, particularly in the type of rural community that Thebo grew up in.

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International Student House of Washington, D.C. Executive Director Tom O’Coin, ISH-DC Board of Directors President Cynthia Bunton and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) attend the 2018 Global Leadership Awards. Photo: Skewed Patella Photo by Derek Parks

Collins, in turn, began by praising Thebo’s inspirational rise.

“Farsha’s compelling story is such a powerful reminder that one of the greatest impediments to honoring the values that we cherish, and to achieving aspirations, is the denial of education to far too many girls and young women in far too many societies around the world,” Collins said.

“Girls’ education is fundamental to social and economic well being as it promotes the health, prosperity and welfare of the next generation. Yet more than 60 million girls around the world are not in school. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women. For nations struggling to break the bonds of poverty, this is an enormous amount of wasted potential,” she added.

As a young senator, Collins recalled meeting John Chafee, a longtime Republican senator from Rhode Island. He’d asked her what she thought would improve women’s health around the world. Collins assumed it would be better access to health services.

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Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sits down to dinner at the ISH-DC 2018 Global Leadership Awards. His wife, Rear Adm. Susan Blumenthal, served as co-chair of the dinner. Photo: Skewed Patella Photo by Derek Parks

“And he said no – it’s whether or not they get an education. That dictates more than anything what their health is going to be and what their lives are going to be like,” she said.

Since then, Collins and Leahy — who both serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee — have pushed for additional funding for USAID to improve girls’ access to education and reached across the aisle to support various gender equality and women’s empowerment programs.

“It is more important now than ever before. Working together, we can carve away the hatred, the bigotry, the suspicion and free the angels of humanity that bring hope to the world,” Collins declared.

Leahy echoed that sentiment.

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Ambassador of Germany Emily Haber, center, talks with Lorraine Hawley, left, and Cynthia Bunton. Photo: Skewed Patella Photo by Derek Parks

“I worry as a U.S. senator that we’re making it increasingly difficult for programs like these to function. I don’t say this in a partisan way. I say this as an American, I say this as a dean of the U.S. Senate working with Republicans and Democrats to open our doors,” Leahy remarked.

He denounced the recent proliferation of hateful rhetoric and demonization of entire nations, ideologies and religions.

“In the name of security, we impose so many obstacles to qualified foreign students and scholars that are either unable or unwilling to come here,” Leahy said. “They’re going to become the future leaders of government, business and society. I want them to remember the United States of America in a good way.”

“We in the United States have isolated ourselves; we’ve made ourselves less secure. We need to be open to the world,” Leahy said, citing ISH-DC as an example of the benefits of opening, rather than shutting, doors.

“The International Student House provides a critical alternative to ignorance and intolerance and stereotyping by promoting mutual understanding, dialogue and respect for diverse nationalities and cultures,” he said. “That’s really the essential ingredient in diplomacy and peace.”


Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.




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