SPINKS: A closer look at the IRC

Though sometimes misunderstood, the IRC is a valuable institution that brings people together

One aspect of international student life that is critical to address is international housing. I lived in the International Residential College during my second year, and my experience led me to two broad conclusions.

First, life in a residential college is what you make of it — the opportunities to engage are there, but if you choose not to indulge in them, the IRC will feel incredibly similar to any other on-Grounds residence hall. And second, I believe the University community at large misunderstands what the IRC is meant to do. Most probably do not know that less than half of IRC residents are international students, and in fact, international students live in several other dorms as well.

At first glance, the IRC may seem problematic or like a tool of segregation of sorts. It is presumptuous to assume that because a group of students is entirely “international,” they will necessarily have overlapping University experiences. International students, after all, come from nearly 150 different countries, and so the idea that they can all be adequately served with identical resources and living conditions is faulty. But in my experience, the IRC did not attempt to corral international students, literally or figuratively. The community that the IRC creates is a good point of contact for incoming international students — in essence, it gives them an automatic (if slightly artificial) place of belonging, much like most other residences on Grounds do.

But international students are not forced to live there, and no singular culture or international experience is given undue focus. Events hosted by the IRC involve traditions, foods and music from a wide range of countries, the United States included. The community is about much more than being “international.” Broadly, it is about being concerned with the world outside of your immediate experience and trying to open your mind to different perspectives. Arguably, the first-year living experience should always have these goals in mind. But what sets the IRC apart is that the goals are actively pursued, rather than passively accomplished. Like the Language Houses or any other specialized housing on Grounds, the IRC attracts applicants with common interests but not necessarily a common background.

The people I met during my year in the IRC were foreign affairs majors, future teachers and artists. Some spoke foreign languages while others merely followed cricket as closely as they followed (American) football. Some had been abroad, others had not. Their respective levels of involvement in the IRC’s many activities were varied. For my own part, I wish I had been more involved than I was. The IRC is not necessarily the right living situation for everyone, but that does not mean that its existence is not valuable.

When he founded the IRC in 2001, Prof. Brad Brown said he hoped “to create an environment focused on exploring global and cross-cultural issues on Grounds.” He wanted the IRC to be “a strong community of successful students with a unique, global perspective,” and I think he achieved that goal. The IRC is part of a larger tradition of residential colleges at the University, which allow you to — as informational packets and currents residents will constantly remind you — “live as Jefferson intended.” Living in a residential college means close contact with seasoned professors, sponsored and themed events, guest speakers and the opportunity to live with students of all years. This last benefit is perhaps the most immediately useful — the IRC provided me with a built-in advising network, invites to parties and events I otherwise would have missed and people to admire and emulate (especially since I shared a major and extracurricular interests with many of them). Emulating the IRC’s model in other on-Grounds residences would benefit not just international students but all students.

I would encourage those who have a negative impression of the IRC to reconsider. Surely, the IRC could do more to engage with the outside University community. Even while living there, I was very aware of the widely-held perception that residents of the IRC were “aloof” or, at least, intentionally separate from the rest of the University. Open houses for current students as well as greater advertisement of the IRC’s several cultural festivals would likely help alleviate this misconception. The existence of the IRC alone does not constitute a satisfactory network for our oft-overlooked international community. But it does good work and it is an important facet of a larger operation that works to comprehensively educate and support not only international students, but all students.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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