When Kevin Laxamana embarked on his first year of university, he only knew that he wanted to be in an arts program, and that whatever he did would involve writing. It was during an introductory anthropology degree class on race and racism that a light bulb went off.
“That changed the course of my undergrad; it was amazing,” he says. “I realized I wanted to make change, impact people and give back to the community.”
Now, several years later, Laxamana is nearing completion of a master’s degree in anthropology at UAlberta. He spent the summer in Singapore and Indonesia conducting a cross-cultural study in gender variance. He’s particularly interested in what he calls the “disrupted life cycles of transgender individuals,” or, as he describes: “From transitioning, which is a kind of birth; through involvement in sex work, beauty pageants, romance and family life; to death.”
Through his work, Laxamana aims to spark a conversation around two main arguments: “One, there is no correct or superior way to organize gender. And two, the transgender experience is very different depending on the region, society, religion and culture.”
His work — and other timely and topical graduate research taking place in the Department of Anthropology — is, in large part, thanks to the support of a significant donation from one of the department’s co-founders, professor emerita Ruth Gruhn.
“There is no correct or superior way to organize gender. The transgender experience is very different depending on the region, society, religion and culture.”
Established in 2016, the Bryan/Gruhn Graduate Anthropology Research Award is named in honour of the pioneering work of Gruhn and her late husband, Alan Bryan, both of whom began teaching at UAlberta in 1963. For decades, the two were anchors of the program, conducting fieldwork, teaching generations of budding anthropologists and even donating their entire professional library of related texts to the university in the late 1980s.
Why is it important for Gruhn, who retired from teaching in 1996, to support the work being done today in the department that she began? “Now that we all have global contacts, it is urgent that people have the knowledge and understanding of other societies,” she argues.
“It’s difficult for students at the master’s level to get funding for research in anthropology, which often requires fieldwork that costs a fair bit, especially if you’re working overseas.”
Andie Palmer, associate chair of graduate anthropology programs, concurs. “[Funding] can be all a student needs to make the difference between doing a library thesis and doing something on the other side of the world.”
For Laxamana, the Bryan/Gruhn scholarship allowed him to travel to Southeast Asia, and that’s not all.
The fact that he received the scholarship made other granting agencies more willing to support his work, he recalls. Palmer agrees, and sees the benefits as even more far reaching. “This support can help students with their next degree or even their first job,” she says. “Students are going to make a much bigger splash in the academic world because of opportunities like this.”
Contributing to a field as diverse and rich as anthropology has inspired a passion in Laxamana that he intends to continue exploring with a PhD. “Research is what I really want to do,” he says. “And there is amazing research happening in the social sciences that can spark change for the better.”
The Bryan/Gruhn Graduate Anthropology Research Award is open to master’s-level students with satisfactory academic standing, in all areas of study in the anthropology department. Last year — its inaugural year — it provided invaluable assistance to 11 students.
If you would like to learn more about how you can help Faculty of Arts students fulfil their potential and pursue their research and career aspirations, please contact Jane Potentier, Assistant Dean Advancement at firstname.lastname@example.org or 780.492.8060.
Banner image: Kevin Laxamana, at far right, with Project X – Singapore volunteers. Project X is a volunteer-run organization that protects the rights of sex workers in Singapore, and working with them was invaluable to Laxamana’s research on transgender women.