Celebrating 30 Years of the Umoja House

Lehigh community gathers to recognize three decades of Umoja on campus. 

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

The Umoja House 30th anniversary celebration reached a crescendo over Lehigh-Lafayette weekend as the Lehigh community, including the House’s founding members, gathered to recognize the creation of the residential option, which President John D. Simon called “a defining moment for Lehigh.”

The celebration included a welcoming reception for alumni on Friday night at the President’s House, a breakfast on Saturday morning at the Umoja House, a tailgate party at Goodman Stadium before the 155th Lehigh-Lafayette Rivalry football game and “The Vibe” Umoja Celebration Party Saturday night at the Wood Dining Room in the Iacocca Conference Center. 

“Thirty years ago, a group of student leaders, led by Leon Caldwell, approached then-President Peter Likins with a request to secure a space on campus for a more inclusive residential option,” said Lehigh President John D. Simon, in remarks at Saturday’s celebratory dinner. “The result was a defining moment for Lehigh: the creation of Umoja House.”

Umoja—the Swahili word for unity—opened its doors at Warren Square A with 12 beds at the start of the 1989-1990 academic year. It was the first campus house for African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students. It has since relocated to a bigger space on the Hill, with a 28-bed capacity. 

“It has become, in the words of a former resident,” Simon said, “‘not a place for just students of color, but a place of diversity and inclusion for everyone on campus.’”

Artist Amelia Galgon creates portrait of the late Sterling Ashby

Artist Amelia Galgon '17 as she works on her portrait of the late Sterling T. Ashby '92. Photo: Christa Neu

At the breakfast, organizers unveiled a commemorative plaque that now hangs at the Umoja House with a composite photo of the founding members. That evening, organizers unveiled a commissioned painting of the late Sterling T. Ashby ’92, a co-founder, by artist Amelia Galgon ’17, and they announced the establishment of the endowed Sterling T. Ashby Memorial Award. The award will be presented annually to a resident of the house at the Multicultural Leadership Awards Banquet held in Spring.

Caldwell and Henry Odi, deputy vice president for equity and community and associate provost for academic diversity, co-hosted Saturday’s dinner. Caldwell also helped chair the anniversary events, along with Dahlia Hylton, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and Jody Rose-Bronner ’91 ’92 M.Ed.

“The Umoja House for me was student activism, essentially asking the questions, How can we do better? How can we live better? How can we be better?” said Caldwell in an earlier interview. Likins said he was concerned at first that the students would be self-segregating but that he was swayed by Caldwell’s passionate argument for a more inclusive residential option for underrepresented students of color on campus.

The theme of the 30th anniversary celebration ws “Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future.”

In connection with the celebration, an Umoja Family Photo Gallery exhibit is on display in the Fairchild-Martindale Gallery behind the FML Café. The exhibit includes portraits of Umoja residents through the years taken by Lehigh staff photographer Christa Neu.

Earlier this month, Lehigh students, staff, faculty and administrators joined in an honor walk through campus that began at Umoja’s original location at Warren Square A and ended at its current location on The Hill. 

Umoja Family Photo Gallery exhibit

The Umoja Family Photo Gallery exhibit that is on display in the Fairchild-Martindale Gallery behind the FML Café.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

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