MA Graduate: Zack Gilkison

Zack Gilkison’s passion for linguistics began when he took his first foreign language course in high school. Gilkison was perplexed by all the differences between German and English, not just in their vocabulary, but also in their structure and their communicative potential. From here on out, Gilkison knew that he wanted to foster his fascination with language, ultimately leading to his already accomplished academic career in linguistics.

Gilkison decided to come to SFU for his master’s degree after completing his bachelor’s degree at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. It was during his bachelor’s degree that Gilkison really began to appreciate the analytic side of linguistic inquiry. What really excited Gilkison was asking questions about the nature of communication as well as the mental infrastructure involved in achieving communicative success.

It was because of Gilkison’s inquisitive nature about language that he decided to pursue a graduate degree at SFU. After having entered the ‘real world’ for a year after his undergraduate studies, Gilkison entered the workforce. During this time, it became clear to him that asking meaningful questions about the language and communication was much more fulfilling to him than arguing with people on the phone and denying them assistance because of a ‘bottom line’. This is when Gilkison decided to go back to asking and answering big questions about language.

The structure and meaning-making potential of Indigenous languages fascinated Gilkison. SFU has an excellent reputation encouraging the study of Indigenous languages and cultures, so it seemed like an ideal place for him to pursue his master’s degree. Additionally, Gilkison chose SFU because it offered him the freedom to ask open-ended questions for their own sake. While perhaps every school does this to some degree, Gilkison stated that SFU really offered him the opportunity to explore and develop questions that were of interest to him. SFU’s location close to Gilkison home in the Pacific Northwest was an added bonus.

Gilkison states that the opportunity to work on Hul’q’umi’num’ “the greatest privilege of I’ve ever been granted in my life and quite possible the greatest privilege I’ll ever have.” He has also expressed his gratitude to all the Elders and learners who graciously shared their language, their knowledge, and their culture with him, giving him the chance grow as an academic and as a person. Gilkison has had the honor to give back to the community in the form of his own knowledge and expertise.

The most valuable take-away skill that Gilkison developed during his master’s degree pertain to formulating the right questions and how to effectively argue his beliefs. Additionally, Gilkison finds great value in his acquired skills in organization, time management, and coding. On the topic of time management, Gilkison adds that it is crucial “to learn to manage your mental health and efficiently not work: get up, switch your mind off of ‘work’ mode into ‘break’ mode, go outside, go for a stroll, talk to some friends, look at a tree, open your eyes up all the way and get the sky in there”, adding that “it turns out that sometimes the most efficient way to do work is to explicitly not do work for a bit.” Surely this is advice we can all benefit from. As an unsolicited tip for anyone living in the Pacific Northwest, or in the northern hemisphere, Gilkison recommends Vitamin D supplements and a light box to help with the winter blues. Responsibly, Gilkison stressed the importance of talking to your doctor.

 Gilkison’s biggest tip for current and future graduate students is to “try to figure out, one way or another, what you actually do with your time when you’re in grad school (and beyond), and see if it’s something that really resonates with you. If it does, and you feel like you can manage to keep yourself sufficiently curious and active in your work, then it really doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.”

We wish Gilkison the best of luck in the PhD program in the SFU linguistics department!