Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Master of Arts, Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies, UBC Okanagan (2015)
Bachelor of Arts, UBC Okanagan (2013)
“My experience doing research changed the trajectory of my entire life.”
Through anthropology research, alum and current UBC instructor Robyn Giffen found a mentor, a love of language, and a new direction
ANTHROPOLOGY ALUMNA ROBYN GIFFEN made a deep impression as an undergraduate student at UBC’s Okanagan campus through her involvement in campus and residence life, student representation in university government, and numerous awards and scholarship programs.
Her most profound accomplishment, however, may be her work on a research project to resurrect a dying oral language by creating a written alphabet, ultimately to improve people’s lives with literacy.
During her third year of study, Giffen won an Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Award (URA) and completed a project titled, “Writing a Language, Voicing a People: Creating an Orthography for Nabit.”
Under the supervision of Associate Professor of Anthropology Christine Schreyer, Giffen created a writing system for Nabit, an oral language spoken in the Upper East Region of Ghana. The language is in danger of going extinct, along with the culture and language embedded in it.
“My experience doing research changed the trajectory of my entire life,” says Giffen. “It led to the opportunity to be a teaching assistant, which led to my new dream of getting a PhD, and becoming a university professor.”
Giffen went on to present her research at international conferences in Amsterdam, Ottawa, and Hawaii, and won two top oral presentation awards. She also continued her research as a master’s student and travelled to Ghana to work directly with Nabit speakers.
Giffen describes Schreyer as her “greatest mentor” and credits her with everything she knows about linguistic anthropology. Schreyer is perhaps best known for developing the Kryptonian language for the Hollywood film Man of Steel, but for Giffen, Schreyer’s biggest influence is her support of students.
“Professor Schreyer always went out of her way to support me and my research. She helped me attend conferences, secure funding and network.
“She is also the biggest supporter of my career aspirations. She has spent many hours writing me reference letters for jobs and scholarships, mentoring me on how to be a better teacher and lecturer, and is probably the main reason I’m teaching right now.
“I love learning and teaching, and am so happy to have the opportunity to teach at UBCO and to give back to a place that has given me so much, and hopefully inspire a new group of students to find a love for language.”
Giffen’s journey to becoming an anthropology instructor at UBC Okanagan started the moment she and her parents first arrived from Calgary for a tour of the campus.
“Everything I know about being a good university instructor, I learned from the incredible professors I got to work with and learn from,” she says.
During her first visit to UBC Okanagan, Giffen didn’t yet know where her university experience would lead. She had thought it was the first step on her journey to becoming a high-school social studies or English teacher.
But by her final year of undergraduate studies in 2013, she knew her time at UBC had changed her—and the direction of her life.
—by Deanna Roberts