Student Success

U of L English student earns two academic awards

Silva Baiton, a fourth-year University of Lethbridge student, didn’t expect her essay would win this year’s Michael Chan Prize in Asian Studies, let alone win a second award when she presented her essay at a conference.

“I was super excited to find out about the Michael Chan Prize,” she says. “I was scheduled to present the paper at the Japan Studies Association of Canada annual conference the next weekend so it definitely gave me a boost of confidence.”

The second award, the Klaus Pringsheim Student Presentation Award, was given to her following the conference.

“I was the only undergraduate student at this conference,” she says. “When I got the email that I won first place, I was in shock for about 10 minutes. It was a great experience and I learned a lot at the conference.”

Baiton, an English major with a double minor in Asian Studies and Japanese Studies, wrote about Burakumin, an outcaste group in Japan that has experienced severe discrimination. Historically, they were at the bottom of the social order because they worked in occupations that were considered to be tainted by death, such as butchers, slaughterhouse workers, leather workers and undertakers.

“I was drawn to this topic because, in my second year, I went to two lectures by a scholar named Jessica Main,” she says. “She talked about this subject of Burakumin and how these people were discriminated against.”

Dr. Main is a professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia who focuses her research on modern Buddhist ethics, social action and institutional life in East and Southeast Asia.

“Even today, if you have this heritage there’s still discrimination going on,” says Baiton. “People have trouble entering companies and getting ahead in society. They’re kind of forced to reject that heritage.”

Baiton’s essay discussed the origins of Burakumin subcaste, which dates from as early as the 700s, and developments through to the modern period of Japan, roughly the late 1800s. She described their resistance efforts and the role of literature in the resistance, as well as how these people were represented in the literature of the time.

“Usually, these representations were pretty negative and the characters were exploited,” she says. “I’m interested in how literature can influence the discourses around Japanese identity and what that means. Because of their physical and social isolation, Burakumin were not thought to be ethnically Japanese; instead people believed they came from Korea, Russia or elsewhere. So, although this group actually was Japanese, they were further othered and excluded from society in a circular way.”

In March, Baiton will travel to Tokyo to participate in an exchange program at Rikkyo University until August, before returning to the U of L to complete her final year of studies. She hopes to teach English in Japan and, eventually, pursue a master’s in Japanese literature.

Pursuing such a dense program of studies has made Baiton a disciplined time manager.

“I try to schedule times to just relax and I never work late into the night or lose sleep. You have to be at your best if you want to do well,” she says. “Also, I think it’s important not to compete with others or compare yourself to others or what they’re doing. Just try to do your own best and don’t expect too much and then if something good comes along, then it’s just really affirming of the hard work you’ve done.”