It began with a simple gesture of Christian love and good ol' American hospitality.

Two friends walking across the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1908 encountered a group of melancholy-looking Chinese students and asked how they were getting on at school - shocking the Chinese, because no other Americans had tried to befriend them.

The Americans were the Rev. A. Waldo Stevenson and Edward Cope Wood, his friend and colleague at the University of Pennsylvania Christian Association. Stevenson took the Chinese students back to his Larchwood Avenue home for refreshments and a chat.

Out of that encounter grew International House, now one of Philadelphia's premier cultural centers.

The I-House mission is twofold: It provides housing, language, instruction, and support for hundreds of foreign students and scholars at more than 25 Philadelphia-area colleges. And I-House's arts programming exposes the general public to a varied year-round program of films, concerts, plays, and exhibits.

The Friday afternoon socials that began when Stevenson invited the Chinese students home continue to this day, said I-House executive director Tanya Steinberg.

In 1911, Penn recognized Stevenson's work and named him foreign mission secretary of the Christian Association. Seven years later, his ad hoc club became a full-service residence with the acquisition of the Potts Mansion at 3905 Spruce St.

I-House shed its formal ties to Penn and the Christian Association in the 1940s, becoming an independent nonprofit institution. In 1970, it moved to its current home at 3701 Chestnut St., a striking, 17-story building created by Philly architect John A. Bower Jr.

"This was not just a dormitory with rooms down a hallway. A very rich mix of activities occur in that location," says Bower. "It was [supposed to be] a community."

To induce social interaction, Bower placed the living quarters around a large public room.

Up to 1,200 residents come through I-House's 400 rooms each year. They hail from more than 90 countries, most notably China, South Korea, India, and, in increasing numbers, Saudi Arabia.

This year, some Arab residents were distraught when pro-democracy revolts broke out across North Africa.

"They were worried about their families," says Steinberg, "so we met with them and helped each of them reach their families."

About 20 percent of I-House residents are American, ensuring that residents receive a healthy dose of exposure to America.

"[Residents] are looking for exposure to the world, to learn about . . . other worlds" says the Moldova-born Steinberg, who emigrated to America 22 years ago.

The shock of that exposure, Steinberg says, is ameliorated because I-House provides a supportive community.

"The residents know others are going through similar experiences of adapting to a different language, a different country, a different culture," she says.

Industrial engineer Andres Giraldo, 25, had his very first taste of America last month when he flew to Philly from his home in Bogota, Colombia.

He says he is still in shock, but glad of the support he has received from fellow Spanish-speakers at I-House.

Giraldo apologizes for his broken English numerous times. He's still green, he says, having just begun an eight-month English-language course.

I-House has been such a success, it has spawned sister houses in five U.S. cities, including New York, Washington and Chicago. There are 16 I-Houses abroad, from Taiwan and South Korea to London, the Netherlands, and Australia.

Nana Sarpong Agyemang-Mensah, who was born in East Lansing, Mich., and raised in Ghana, credits I-House's appeal to its broad range of programs. Language classes are offered in-house, but not just in English: residents also can learn Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin. They also are treated to lectures by leading academics and professionals.

Agyemang-Mensah says residents regularly give presentations about their homelands. "I remember this woman from Morocco who talked about the history of belly dancing," she says. "She even brought a professional dancer with her to illustrate."

Agyemang-Mensah, who is doing postgraduate work in public health at Penn, is one of a growing number of I-House residents who have won grants from the Davis Projects for Peace.

The Davis Foundation was founded in 2007 by Kathryn W. Davis, a then-100-year-old philanthropist and former I-House New York resident, as part of her mission to promote global peace.

The foundation is not part of I-House's official programs, but residents are encouraged to broaden their horizons with Davis-sponsored projects.

Agyemang-Mensah is using her $10,000 grant to implement empowerment programs for women in northern Ghana, a region scarred by tribal conflicts.

"We will have workshops on the laws of the country, inheritance, and child-welfare rights . . . on leadership skills and on reproductive health," says the 28-year-old, who is heading to Ghana next month.

Penn computer science graduate student Cho Kim, 28, won a Davis grant in 2009 when he was still an undergraduate.

Kim, who was born in South Korea but grew up in Wallingford, devised a series of workshops that threw together I-House residents and the predominantly African American students from University City High School.

"It forced both sides to interact," says Kim, "and they learned a lot from each other."

Contact Inquirer staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.
For information about International House, go to http://ihousephilly.org/.