In 1999, when a student of Professor Oliver Vornberger of the northern German University of Osnabrück asked him for a reference, little did he realise that this routine service would change his life. The reference was to support an application for residence at St John’s College in faraway Vancouver. That student, Jan Hannemann, undertaking a PhD at the UBC, wrote back with a glowing description of the college and the pert advice, “This would be a nice place for you.” This lead to Oliver’s first sabbatical residence in 2002. What he found was no dreary student digs but a place of trees, lawns and smart buildings filled with fascinating young people from across the globe, who were not only of high scholastic calibre, but also talented in the arts, literature and music. And, against this, was the backdrop of a grand university and a beautiful city between the mountains and the sea.
It was a setting that further inspired his own creativity in his chosen field of Computer Science and his hobby in digital audio-visual media. The moment was indeed ripe. Over that brilliant spring, there were fabulous parties, so-called Coffeehouse concerts and a theatrical; the students were practising a song that would express the college’s international flavour. Sung in several languages to the tune of The Seekers’ “I Am Australian,” the song exemplified both diversity and inclusivity. Feeling that such a song should be published to a wider audience, Oliver made a recording one fervent evening in the Fairmont Social Lounge. Despite the simple equipment used, it was a beautiful piece of work and, placed on the Internet, allowed friends and relatives of students a peek into the microcosm of St John’s College.
Then, feeling that something more of the spirit of the college should be preserved and, encouraged by the friendliness of everyone around, Oliver went further. Over the warming days, he set about making a short film with snippets featuring residents expressing their points of view as well their musical and acting abilities. It was a stunning success and, transferred to DVD, allowed the students to take home a time-frozen piece of the college.
Even when back in Osnabrück, Oliver remained enamoured of the College. Together with his students, he created the Johannean Database that would allow alumni to keep in touch, before Facebook was even launched. For many years supported by the college, the Database is still accessible and updated by many alumni although new entries have become scarce. It is a slice of the varied and captivating cast of characters that have populated the college across several years.
Oliver returned to St John’s in the spring of 2007 and 2012 and, on each visit, made a short film of college life. He also had time to make a short film of the feisty Granville Island Market, presenting a range of stall keepers talking very articulately about their wares and another of a time-lapsed bus trip from the UBC to downtown Vancouver on a blue-sky day.
It is five years between drinks for Oliver at the van der Linden Dining Hall and his next visit is timed for 2017. Then, we can be sure that residents of that lucky year will be able to take home a little disc that, perhaps on one lazy winter afternoon, might recreate for them, the voices and faces of absent friends. And surely some of the joy, colour and movement of long-gone days will surface from the crevices of memory: breakfasting together over the warm smell of coffee, scrumptious dinners, the jokes and songs, laughter and chitchat all concertinaed into the moment.
Note: In 2009, Professor Oliver Vornberger was awarded the prestigious Ars Legendi Prize for the best lecturer in Computer Science in Germany. All work mentioned in this story may be found in this link: http://www.vornberger.net/stjohns