Meet our Students: Kyrie Vermette

This interview features Ph.D. student, Kyrie Vermette. Recent recipient of the Vancouver Korean-Canadian Scholarship Foundation awards scholarship, Ms. Vermette’s research focuses on the interactions between Korean women and foreign women living in Korea during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In our interview, Vermette shares her experience as a graduate student, research interests and advice for students considering the program. 

Tell us a little about yourself, your background and what inspired your early interest in Korean history and popular culture?

No one who had known me in my childhood would have supposed that I would do a PhD in Korean history. I was aware that South Korea was a country on the map, but I displayed no particular interest in it until high school when I had the good fortune to become friends with a Korean student. During our fourth year, she was so obliging as to invite two other friends and me to her house in Seoul for spring vacation. Even so, it wasn’t until the first year of my BA in history, when I did a semester abroad in Seoul, that I developed a passionate admiration and regard for Korean history. Perhaps it was because studying Korean history in Korea was such a visceral experience, or because the relative rarity of Korean history in North American universities induced a desire to promulgate it but, either way, following that semester abroad I decided to focus my historical studies on Korea. Having taken every course offered at my home university which was in any way related to Korea, and there were not many, I returned to study in Seoul and was overwhelmed by all that I did not know. My devoted interest in Korean history, combined with a keen sense of curiosity in what I have yet to learn, has carried me here, to my second year of a PhD in Asian Studies.

Could you explain to a non-expert what you are researching and why it is significant?

I am researching the interactions between Korean women and foreign women living in Korea during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the late 19th century, many North American women went to Korea as missionaries to work with Korean women. They established schools for girls and women’s hospitals, as well as social gatherings and clubs for mothers. North American women missionaries interacted with Korean women almost daily and, even though they talked about being sisters with Korean women and improving their lives, they maintained a sense of superiority based on imperialistic ideas of race and civilization. Japanese women also went to Korea increasingly after Japan made Korea its colony in 1910. These women were wives of colonial officials and/or teachers of Japanese language or Japanese-style domesticity. Some of these women also co-founded girls’ schools and conducted research in order to ‘improve’ the lives of Korean women. Similar to missionary women, Japanese settler women also used ideologies of race, civilization, and modernization to assert ‘superiority’ and authority over Korean women. The position of Korean women also changed drastically during this time. Female public education emerged as did early career women. Some women became active in the public and literary spheres while some women enacted a new form of domesticity. Through their education and travels, Korean women had increased interactions with foreign women. How did these three groups of women view each other and interact? How were their relationships influenced by colonial ideologies of race and gender and how did they in turn influence those ideologies? My research focuses on the way that women interacted within colonialism. This is significant because colonial interactions are frequently talked about in terms of gendered violence but, for most Korean women, their direct interactions with colonizers would most likely have been through women, not men. In the case of the Japanese colonization of Korea, the role of Japanese settler women is often overlooked. Women in Korea also present an important example for studying colonial ideologies because both North American women and Japanese settler women were present and each used similar, but slightly altered, colonial ideologies.

Why did you choose the Asian Studies program at UBC?

The Asian Studies program at UBC is well-known in Canada amongst people studying Korea. As one of the few Canadian universities with a department focusing on Asia, UBC offers students many resources in terms of both faculty and peers and an extensive Asian library. I chose UBC because of this good reputation, and I’m pleased to say that it has lived up to my expectations.

What are your career and academic goals?  And how is our program helping you achieve them?

At present, my goals are as moderate and yet as elusive as I imagine to be the goals of most PhD students. I wish for an academic position which allows me to teach and research in my area of interest. The Asian Studies PhD program is assisting me towards the future realization of these goals by providing me with an excellent education at UBC, ample opportunities to make the acquaintance of other scholars, and support for my overseas research.

As a graduate student, what have been your main activities and responsibilities?

To improve my mind by extensive reading. Being in my second year, my main activities still consist of taking courses, learning languages, and doing archival research during the vacations.

Has there been an aspect of your graduate experience that was unexpected?

Having already completed an MA in East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, there was not a great deal about the academic experience of the PhD program which was unexpected. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by the many opportunities to meet visiting professors and by how many professors treat me not so much as their student, but as someone who may one day become their future colleague.

What has been your most impactful experience as a graduate student?

I have heard a great many stories from PhD students in other universities of the pernicious competition within their departments. Thankfully though, my experience has been quite the opposite, and I am continuously overwhelmed by the mutual support and atmosphere of camaraderie which I encounter amongst graduate students in the Asian Studies Department. The advice, assistance, and attention which I receive from my fellow students has left an extremely positive impact on my PhD experience.

Can you give any advice to new students in our program or for students considering applying to it?

For new students, I would say: don’t be afraid or ashamed of not knowing something. If you do not understand something, ask another student. We cannot possibly know everything, but odds are that someone around you will be able to help you and by asking you will learn.  Academia can be an isolating or a community experience and it is my belief that, through interacting with other students and professors, our own research is enhanced. Also, whenever our books return, take advantage of the Asian Library because it is a rare asset we have.