The time you spend in St. John’s College can be life-changing. It certainly was for me.
When I was accepted into SJC, I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to meet and get to know exceptional people from all disciplines from all over the world. There is no other place on Earth, I believe, that has such a concentration of intelligent diversity. I participated in many SJC activities that I am sure endure to this day: the dining society, the movie club, the running club, the weekly trek to Koerner’s pub, to name a few. There is, of course, no shortage of activities in which to engage. Every resident enriches the community in his or her unique way.
I was so thoroughly enamored by SJC’s international ambiance that, by the second semester of my stay, I set about pursuing a goal that I had had at the back of my mind for many years: to learn foreign languages. So many languages are spoken at SJC — many more than the number of residents, since many Johanneans are multi-lingual. I myself was already proficient in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. I set about learning French, Spanish and — if I could — Portuguese. I was fortunate enough to have a supervisor who allowed me to audit UBC language courses, which I did. By the time I finished my doctorate, I had audited more than twice as many language courses than I had taken credit for towards my Electrical Engineering program.
But these courses would not have amounted to that much without the reinforcement that I got from SJC residents. At the communal dinner table, several times a week, I would practice my new pet languages with other SJC residents who spoke them — either natively, or language learners like me. All were more than willing to engage me in conversation, patiently listening to what at first were probably only incomprehensible sentence fragments, correcting my mistakes, teaching me new words, helping me practice.
By the time my four-year stay at SJC came to an end, I had achieved near complete fluency in Spanish and French, a good grasp of Portuguese, and I could even understand Italian if spoken slowly enough. But that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how SJC affected my life. You see, one of the SJC residents, a doctoral candidate from Colombia, who was a good friend and one of my favorite conversation partners in the SJC dining hall, just happened to be looking for an Electrical Engineering doctoral candidate who would be willing to go to Colombia to dictate an Electrical Engineering seminar in her Colombian university — in Spanish. I jumped at the opportunity. Not only would this be a great opportunity to practice my Spanish but, needless to say, it also would be a free plane ticket to what would surely be a truly interesting trip to South America — a place I had never visited before.
The seminar was a great success. It turns out that, if you put your mind to it and have the good fortune of living at SJC, you can actually achieve complete fluency in a foreign language, good enough to dictate a university-level seminar without even having ever set foot in a country in which that language is spoken.
But this too, was only the beginning. While in Colombia, I was offered a position in that university as a visiting professor. Without much thought, I of course accepted the offer. I was supposed to be there only one year. But then, when that year was almost over, I met a wonderful girl. I managed to extend my stay there to see if I could get to know her better. It turned out we got to like each other a lot. I ended up staying in Colombia for three years and, when I came back, I brought my new Colombian wife with me.
So you see, what started off as SJC residents just having good-natured chats in the microcosm that is the SJC dining hall morphed, for me, into a completely unique cultural experience and then into a wonderful marriage. So, when next you sit down at the dining hall, take a good look around. You never know where your dinner conversations may end up taking you.
SJC resident, 2002 to 2006