The Umoja house, founded in 1989, holds a special place in Lehigh’s history as the first multicultural house on campus.
Christa Neu, a photographer for the Lehigh University Office of Communications and Public Affairs, honored Umoja’s 30th anniversary with a family photo gallery opening behind the E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library Cafe where current and past residents gathered to celebrate on Nov. 11.
Neu said she was able to photograph 45 people who have been a part of the Umoja house.
“I wanted to do something different to generate excitement for the Umoja anniversary,” Neu said. “Because the Umoja house was created out of student activism, I wanted to show as many pieces and meet as many people as I could.”
She said she was inspired to take portraits of people to share their stories and, as a result, capture the essence of Umoja as a home.
“I thought, ‘What makes a house a home?’” Neu said. “And it’s the people who live in it, because people bring life into the home, and that’s what I wanted to portray.”
Neu said her goal was to bring attention to Umoja and the importance of unity.
“The photo project would be a different way to get people’s attention, especially alumni who would want to come back and celebrate the home they lived in,” Neu said. “The Umoja house is important to so many people in so many different ways, but having a place where you can say ‘you are welcome here’ to one another is really significant.”
Former resident Serena Walker Jean, ‘21, said Umoja has a vital role on Lehigh’s campus, especially for incoming students.
“People underestimate how hard it is for people of color to go to a predominantly white institution, especially for people who come from predominantly black or Spanish neighborhood(s),” Walker Jean said. “Having a space where people of color feel like they can be themselves without having to explain or justify their lifestyle is extremely important for Lehigh.”
Current Umoja resident Cyannah Ramasay, ‘22, said Umoja helped her with her transition to Lehigh because the house provides students with a community that is accepting of different races and cultures.
“It truly is a safe space,” Ramasay said. “And in the end, living in Umoja helped me understand how to interact with people outside of my comfort zone and that’s a life skill that everyone needs to have.”
Jasspreet Bains, ‘20, said Umoja led her to be involved in clubs and activities she would have never considered on her own.
“The people in the house are very active on campus, and meeting those people pushed me to accept and try those new things, such as being on the dance team, and it really opened up a big part of my life.” Bains said.
She said that she found the community she was looking for, and will forever cherish the friends she’s made through Umoja.
Ramasay, who is featured in the photo gallery, said that the exhibition would help students have a better idea of what Umoja is about.
“It was fun to be a part of something, but to see the exhibit all together, and to see friends who aren’t on campus anymore, you learn a lot more about Umoja in itself. It’s really like a family within a family.” Ramasay said.
“People don’t know what Umoja is about, so I think (the exhibit) is a really good way to promote the Umoja house and diversity on campus,” Bains said. “I think that’s a step that Lehigh and (Neu) has taken to help push that.”