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POSTCARD FROM FINLAND – STEVEN’S STORY

 

The Old Paradians’ social media network has served and continues to serve as the conduit between the Association and its network of former students whether near or far.

A case in point involves Steven Spoljaric, a final year student of the class of 2003, who recently contacted the OPA through its website wanting to reconnect from Helsinki, and signed off with the following;

“As we would say in Finnish, ’pitää perinteitä’ (Tenetes Traditiones).”

Subsequent to Steven’s proactive move, he agreed to partake in the following Q and A via email, to offer a little insight on his time at Parade and how fate took him to the Northern European nation.

In doing so, Steven described the process as “a sentimental and introspective experience looking back at my early life and time at Parade – not something I had seriously done in such detail before, so thanks for the opportunity”.


Q: Steven, can you talk a little bit about the early years, where you grew up, and a little of your family background?

A: I grew up in Hibiscus Avenue in Bundoora, just around the corner from Parade, where my parents still live. I grew up in a fairly typical migrant, working-class Northern Suburbs family. Dad came to Melbourne not long after finishing his compulsory military service, his older sister (my aunt) had already migrated and could provide a guarantee for his visa. He worked at the old Kodak factory on Elizabeth Street in Coburg for about 28 years making 35mm film – this meant plenty of free film rolls, blank video tapes and disposable cameras – though I guess they are somewhat redundant now!

Mum studied chemistry back in Croatia and at one point worked in a plastic factory in Melbourne - something which may have influenced my career choices. She worked in Germany for five years before coming to Melbourne. I started piano lessons when I was five – something which would get me involved with the music department at Parade and played a huge role in my time there.

Q: What are the origins of your surname and do you know much about your family history?

A: My surname is Croatian, which roughly translates as ‘spur maker’ or something like a military blacksmith. Mum and Dad both migrated from there in 1971 and 1969, respectively. Croatia was still part of Yugoslavia at the time, and when my parents finished their respective schooling and conscription periods, a recession and government industrial restructuring made job prospects somewhat slim – both being from small farming villages meant there weren’t too many job opportunities.

Both are from peasant farming families in rural villages, in which it seems our roots have been well-established for hundreds of years. Fortunately both areas were spared the horrors of the Second World War and more recent wars in the 1990s, so the opportunity to learn about and experience our family history still remains. They still have siblings and relatives living there, and I’ve been fortunate enough to visit several times and see the people, culture and landscape for myself – and also gain an appreciation for what made them the people they are.

Q: What are your memories of Parade?

A: My first year at Parade was in many ways surreal, since I had grown up so close to the College and had visited a handful of times while still in primary school. Quite a large number of guys from my year level went to primary school at St Francis of Assisi just down the road in Mill Park, and to see us all in a new environment took a little adjustment!

My main memories revolve around the music department, which I stumbled into through my years of studying piano. Teachers including Martin Macaulay, Stuart Brownley, Richard De Bolfo, Darryl Mackenzie, Simon ‘Rock’ Scerri and many others provided constant encouragement and an easy-going, good-humoured environment which not only developed our skills, but also introduced many of us to music. In particular, I must pay credit to my two piano teachers at Parade, Joseph Beckett and Rebecca Hicks. They introduced another world of piano music which wasn’t just Beethoven, Bach or Mozart, and cemented my passion for music which is still an important part of my life.

Playing in Parade’s various bands, the annual trips to Mt Gambier for the Generations in Jazz festival, countless gigs around Melbourne (most notably playing with Wilbur Wilde at Bennett’s Lane), playing in the orchestra for several of Parade’s musicals, loads of fundraising barbecues, carols and band nights (at which my parents would often fry snags and doughnuts) and the tons of mates I made through the music department are some of the memories from Parade I cherish.

Likewise, I must mention my two VCE chemistry teachers, Ivan Kummerle and Colin Glazebrook. As with many of us, I was constantly deciding what to do with myself after high school. They managed to spark and develop an interest in chemistry and ultimately sealed my fate which led me to Helsinki!

Q: So what about life after the College? Where did you study and what was your professional career path?

A: After graduating from Parade I completed a Bachelor of Applied Science and PhD in Polymer Science and Engineering from RMIT University. Even though I lived over the fence from the Bundoora campus, I ironically completed both degrees at the CBD campus! Not long after finishing my university studies I began working as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Aalto University in Finland and have been here ever since. If I hadn’t taken the Helsinki position, plan B would have been working for BASF in Shanghai, China – so the story could have been quite different!

Q: What do you do now?

A: I’m currently working as a Research Fellow within the Polymer Technology Group at Aalto University, which involves research, teaching, consulting and various other tasks such as instrument/machine maintenance and liaising with industry. The bulk of our research and work revolves around the synthesis and processing of polymers and plastics derived from bio-sources – most notably cellulose, wood pulp and other plant derivatives like vegetable oils. It can be challenging and demanding work at times, since biopolymers usually cost more to manufacture and have inferior performance and properties when compared with conventional polymers derived from oil and gas. But it’s a growing and quite exciting field, in which we’ve managed to make nice progress in a relatively short amount of time.

I ended up in Finland through my job hunting days after finishing university. The job scene was a bit quiet in Australia at the time, so I decided to look abroad. I applied for a number of jobs both in academia and industry, and eventually was offered my current position. I arrived here in June 2012 and have been working and living here ever since.

Q: Are you married/single?

A: Single and no children.

Q: What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to return to Australia?

My current contract expires in April 2018, although there is a possibility for a permanent, full-time extension. But at the same time I’m keeping an eye open for other opportunities both here and back in Australia. I enjoy living and working in Finland, although it would be nice to be a bit closer to home. Even though the world is constantly getting smaller through things like email and social media, it’s still no substitute for physically being in a place. In the mean time I’ll see what the possibilities are, keep an open mind and take it from there.

Q: Do you keep in touch with any old schoolmates from the class of 2003?

A: I’m in somewhat regular contact with Julian Campobasso, Clint Serafini, Chris Hume, Chris Wood and Andrew Page from the class of 2003.

Q: What did Parade mean to you?

A: Parade was where my initial interest in music was developed and expanded, while my current interest and profession in chemistry was conceived and nurtured - so in many ways it shaped and moulded me into the person I am today. Furthermore, it gave me the opportunity to meet some great teachers and students, and provided many insightful, fun and hilarious memories at the same time.