Final Word

Coming home to UB is a family story, too

By Vibeke Sorensen, Professor and Chair, UB Department of Media Study

As a child, Vibeke Sorensen (middle slide) loved listening to her parents’ international friends. At bottom: her mother, Doris, at work.

FOR MOST OF US, going home brings feelings of comfort and familiarity, of known relationships and established patterns built up over many years. For me, it’s also a rediscovery of the past reconfigured for the present and reimagined for the future.

Coming back to UB after more than 30 years away is, more than anything else, a celebration. First, it is my own university: I received an MAH in 1976, and from the very department for which I now serve as chair. It is also my parents’ university: My father, Soren, was chair of the Department of Dental Materials in what is now the School of Dental Medicine. My mother, Doris, taught Danish and German in the Department of Linguistics until a short time ago.

I was born in Denmark and in 1962, when I was eight years old, I arrived here from Chicago with my parents. As a child, I would call our house in Snyder “international hotel”—it was a real gathering place for professors, researchers and scholars from around the world. Our guests were friendly and they were very interesting.

My mother often showed cultural films—usually about Denmark, and borrowed from consulates and embassies—to her academic colleagues and my father’s, too. She had a rule: My brother and I had to come and listen to the adults for at least 30 minutes; then we could do something else. My brother, Flemming, would opt out after the required period, but I remained, preferring the company of the adults.

At first, I wanted to be a geneticist. So when I was 14, my parents let me take a job helping out in the genetics lab at UB as a junior technician. I remember using the autoclave to clean drosophila bottles. Not exactly the stuff of grand discovery I had imagined, but I was beginning to see the larger picture of the person I might become.

Soon most of my friends were UB students—I went to Lockwood Library (now Abbott Hall) almost every night to do my homework and I joined Schussmeisters Ski Club. I loved Norton Union (now Squire Hall). There was a theater showing alternative films, a brilliant radio station (WBFO), craft studios and cafés. I remember seeing Simon and Garfunkel perform there before they became famous. It was also the site of speeches by important politicians, including Robert Kennedy when he ran for president. I loved UB then—it seemed that everyone was involved in one kind of movement or another, actively trying to make the world a better place.

After attending college at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, in Copenhagen, I returned to UB in 1974 at age 20 to begin graduate school as one of the very first students in Media Study’s MAH program. After receiving my master’s degree, I departed again, this time for my long career in media art, which began on the east coast, then moved to California. Over the years, I have taught at California Institute of the Arts, University of Southern California, Princeton University and other well-known schools, but I always savored my ties to home and to UB.

Though returning to the University at Buffalo was my first choice professionally because of the strength and prominence of the Department of Media Study, I’m obviously thrilled to be living in the same community as my parents after so many years apart. My father is 90, my mother is 85, and my brother Flemming also lives in the area. It’s always priceless to have your family.

In the 1960s, my parents were part of the original vision of UB as an international university. Today, just as when I was a child, I find the condition of being between cultures helpful when I engage people from around the world as part of my work.

I’ve learned that UB is now one of the most international universities in the country. This is good news, inasmuch as my goal as the new chair is to make a global, transcultural and transdisciplinary program.

How has the university changed in the intervening years? How have I changed? What does it mean to be international today?

These are some of the questions I’ll try to answer now that I’ve come home.

Vibeke Sorensen is an internationally exhibited artist and professor working in digital multimedia and animation, interactive architectural installation, and networked visual music performance.