Date July 27, 2023
Media Contact

Della Tsivor: Connecting language, food and medicine in Korea

The rising Brown junior and aspiring doctor is in Busan for the summer to take intensive Korean language courses — and to investigate the surprising similarities between traditional medicine in Korea and her home country of Ghana.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Della Tsivor has always lived in cities. She spent her early childhood in Accra, Ghana, before moving to New York City with her family.

So when the rising Brown University junior arrived in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, this summer, she didn’t feel total culture shock. Busan’s residential high-rises, some so large that they’re viewed as neighborhoods in their own right, reminded her of similar housing developments in the center of Accra. And the ways in which technology is fully integrated into city citizens’ daily lives reminded her of life in New York, where phone apps grant people access to restaurant discounts, money-management tools and the subway.

But one aspect of life in Busan did shock Tsivor: the law-abiding pedestrian culture. 

“You won’t find a single person here who jaywalks,” Tsivor exclaimed in disbelief. “On my first day, I saw a bunch of pedestrians waiting for the walk signal, even though there were no cars passing in any direction. You’d never see that in New York!” 

Tsivor is one of 25 students spending the summer in Busan as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship Program. The highly competitive scholarship, which provides financial assistance for students who want to travel abroad to study languages essential to America's engagement with the world, accepts only 10% of applicants each year.

Tsivor said she has Brown’s Center for Language Studies to thank for her success. According to CLS Director Jane Sokolosky, the center provides application assistance to Brown students every year, advising them on personal essays and other supplemental materials. With help from center staff, eight students from the University won the scholarship this year; they’re now scattered across multiple continents studying Swahili, Arabic, Portuguese and more.

Each morning, Tsivor attends intensive Korean language classes at Busan National University. In the afternoons and evenings, she studies, explores the city and takes part in organized program activities that put her language skills to the test. Activities thus far have included Korean cooking classes, visits to significant historical sites and a chance to try on the hanbok, a traditional Korean outfit often worn to weddings and other formal occasions.

Discovering cross-cultural connections

Tsivor began studying Korean in her first year at Brown — but her interest in the language and culture dates back to her teen years, when she was a student at Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health and Science Charter School in the Bronx.

“My math and homeroom teacher was born in Korea and immigrated to the U.S.,” Tsivor said. “From time to time, she would bring in Korean snacks and talk about Korean holidays and traditions. She also started an after-school club where she introduced some of us to different aspects of Korean culture, like art and writing. By the time I came to Brown, I knew I wanted to study Korean more formally.”

Tsivor said she became captivated by Koreans’ use of plants as medicine: Poria mushrooms, for example, are widely used in the country to support immune function and urinary-tract health, and the herb pinelliae is widely believed to ease coughs and phlegm in the midst of a cold.

Learning about traditional Korean remedies reminded Tsivor of her own childhood in Ghana. Rather than popping into the drugstore to stock up on Airborne, Tsivor’s parents would ward off sickness by grinding up seeds from the moringa plant and steeping the grounds in hot water. Tsivor and her family would also frequently eat a local leafy green called kontomire, which is rich in vitamins A and C, fiber, protein and omega 3s, to boost their heart health.

“In Ghanaian culture, it’s common to use food as a health intervention, rather than immediately turning to a pill or prescription drug,” Tsivor said. “I’ve noticed that there’s a similar practice in Korea. On one of our trips in Busan, a teacher was telling me about all the different beneficial herbs and roots Korean people have been using in teas and cooking for hundreds of years.”

“ Food is a big part of almost every culture. It’s a route for you to really connect with people and get to know them a little better. ”

Della Tsivor Class of 2025

Tsivor, an aspiring doctor, is soaking up all this knowledge in hopes that she can later integrate it into her medical practice. She believes that educating patients about the benefits and nutritional profiles of many natural ingredients may help them better understand and take charge of their own health. 

“Prescription drugs may seem easy: You get them from the pharmacy, you follow the directions on the label, and you feel better,” Tsivor said. “But it’s kind of a passive experience: You don’t necessarily know what’s in the pill you’re taking, how it works or what side effects you might get. On the other hand, I think it’s really empowering to have the knowledge you need to go to the grocery store, actively choose your own ingredients and know exactly what they’re going to do for you when you eat them.”

Combining Western medical advances with age-old plant wisdom from across the globe, Tsivor said, doesn’t just come with potential health benefits. She has seen how, in major multicultural cities like New York, an increased awareness of foods and remedies from different cultures can help knit communities together and increase empathy. 

“Food is a big part of almost every culture,” Tsivor said. “It’s a route for you to really connect with people and get to know them a little better. We’re living in a diverse society, so I don’t see why we can’t combine all of our collective knowledge to feel happier and healthier.”