Scholars with a present or past link to St. John’s College UBC and its antecedent, the now defunct St. John’s University in Shanghai, are known as Johanneans.
One of the Johanneans at UBC was John Atta Mills, who served as the progressive president of Ghana from 2009 until his death in 2012. Others at St. John’s University in Shanghai were former Taiwanese president and diplomat Wellington Koo and famed architect I. M. Pei.
In 1879, U.S. missionaries founded St. John’s University, Shanghai, which offered an elite English-language education beginning in 1891.
According to Henry Yu, principal of St. John’s College UBC, the university was despised by Maoists in China because of its western orientation, so it was converted to other uses in 1952. Many of the alumni fled China.
"They went through the worst of the 20th century in Chinese history," Yu said. “They got scattered all over the globe—everywhere from New York to Paris. But they stuck together.”
Ironically, Mao Zedong’s doctor was a graduate of the Shanghai institution, as were some high-ranking cadres in the Communist party.
St. John’s College is a UBC residential college on the Point Grey campus housing 165 graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and visiting scholars from almost 50 countries.
Founded in 1997 with the help of graduates from the Shanghai institution, its motto is “the world around our table”. It’s a reflection of the international cuisine served in the Van der Linden Dining Hall to residents and visitors.
The restaurant is ringed with 100 flags representing the countries of origin of past and present residents. Self-serve dinners are available from Sundays through Thursdays, with tickets costing $13 for students and $17.25 for nonstudents.
Yu likened conversations in the dining hall to what takes place in colleges at Cambridge and Oxford, where there’s also a tradition of eating in groups.
“There’s something about breaking bread together that creates certain kinds of discussions and a kind of trust and a willingness to speak frankly and respect others,” Yu stated.
The St. John's College UBC community has a history of supporting one another.
When a former resident, Rumana Monzur, was blinded by her husband in a domestic assault in Bangladesh five years ago, her fellow students launched a campaign to bring her back to Vancouver for treatment.
“They tried to save her eyesight but couldn’t do it,” Yu said. “But they continued to support her. They made sure she finished her master’s by reading out readings to her when she needed it.”
Monzur is now attending law school. Her friends’ collective effort prompted retired architect Stanley Kwok, a graduate of St. John’s University in Shanghai, to tell Yu: “That’s the St. John’s spirit.”
Yu said that the St. John's University in Shanghai graduates who live in the Lower Mainland meet once a month for lunch in Richmond. They also visit St. John's College UBC during a "founders week" every September.
"They're in their 80s and 90s but they're spry," Yu said. "They really live to the fullest. I think that has been an inspiration to our residents."