Spotlight on Seniors: Olivia Truesdale ’21’s Quest to Connect Language and Culture

Stepping off the plane at Incheon International Airport in the summer of 2019, foreign languages major Olivia Truesdale had a sense of unreality. Surrounded by the sights and splendor of Seoul, she was at the precipice of her longest and most intense trip abroad: An internship at the US Embassy followed by a semester abroad at Yonsei University (supplemented, of course, by memorable nights out singing karaoke and eating Korean BBQ). Looking back at that time, Truesdale recalls, “my work, the people around me, and the city itself were all so enchanting, and it was liberating to be able to explore somewhere completely new, build a community, and challenge myself in my language and other skills.”

Since that moment, Truesdale has been gripped by the relationship of language and culture. “Language and culture influence the other, and together they impact community perspectives,” she says. She cites the many levels of formality, honorific speech, and subtle grammar nuances that encode meaning and cultural data into any given sentence in the Korean language. “In just a few words, it’s possible to understand, for example, the social hierarchy of, or familiarity between, two people in the conversation, or what one assumes about the other’s knowledge on a topic.” Applying this schema to diplomatic relations, Truesdale notes that these nuances “could influence how two leaders perceive each other, their relationship, and their policies and priorities.”

That’s why Truesdale sees the study of language as central to her planned career of non-partisan and diplomatic work. Currently, she is serving as a think tank intern with the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), a non-partisan, non-profit research institution that aims to strengthen and inform Asia-Pacific policy, and will continue on as a project associate at NBR after graduation.

This summer, she will continue her study of the Korean language with her second Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), a program sponsored by the US Department of State, studying virtually in partnership with Pusan National University in Pusan, South Korea. She will also be volunteering as an alumni ambassador for CLS, in which capacity she will mentor current participants, help recruit applicants for the 2022 award, and work to enhance community among alumni of the CLS program.

This type of community building is old hat for Truesdale, who, among many other activities, has served as an editor for various student publications, been a writing tutor in two campus departments, been a member of the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company, served on multiple committees, and worked at Scripps’ Career Planning & Resources (who also funded her internship in Seoul).

As Truesdale prepares for graduation, she is finalizing her senior thesis, which she describes as an analysis of “how global culture flows and local cultural-historical influences shape the representation of constructions of masculinity in South Korea and the representation of experiences of Muslims in Spain.” It is written entirely in Spanish.

Despite the sheer amount and rigor of Truesdale’s involvement on campus—and across the globe—she remains focused and present thanks to a bit of wisdom she picked up in the virtual CLS Korean program last summer with Chonnam National University in Gwangju. She recalls an aphorism that her language partner shared: Du mari ttoki jabeuryoda du mari nochinda, which means that when trying to catch two rabbits you miss two. “I like this expression because it reminds me of the importance of balancing ambitions and goals with completing each of them fully. I keep very busy, so this proverb is something I can relate to, as I never want to sacrifice the quality of my work for simply doing a number of different activities,” she says. “To me, each activity is a serious commitment and I always want to do my very best work for each of them.”