GoAbroad Interview

Gustavo Artaza - Founder & CEO

Gustavo Artaza - Founder & CEO

Gustavo Artaza founded International Studies Abroad (ISA) in 1987 and has directed the operation from small study abroad provider in Spain to one of the largest and most respected study abroad organizations in the United States. In addition to directing ISA, Gustavo is married with four children and lives in Austin, Texas.

Study abroad is a crowded market in part because many study abroad alumni think that it would be a great way to start a business. While many providers come and go, ISA has become a fixture in the field of International Education. What makes ISA distinctive in this crowded market place?

ISA Founder and SEO at the ISA Office in Austin, Texas

Gustavo at the ISA Office in Austin.

It has always been an important part of the ISA model to build our own infrastructure and do as much as possible ourselves, which gives us a great deal of quality assurance. This means that not only do we hire staff in every location to which we send students, as well as open ISA offices in each of these places, we also spend the time and resources to establish a legal business entity in each of those countries, formalizing our presence there and becoming a part of the community.

We also have our own I.T. and Graphics departments, which allows us to create study abroad-specific systems and materials by staff who are all dedicated to the goal of international education. This comprehensive, infrastructure-heavy approach makes us unique in the study abroad world and I believe leads to better student education and experience abroad.

Perhaps more universities are affiliated with ISA than any other provider. To what would you attribute this? Do study abroad advisors look for the same things in a program provider that students look for?

Because of the infrastructure development that we do, we can make sure that all ISA programs around the world meet the same high standard. Advisors who visit our offices abroad, or receive feedback from their students who participate in a variety of ISA programs notice this consistency, and I think that's important when they are looking to work with a provider. We also have dedicated health and safety abroad professionals and have always put a focus on student safety and security abroad. While students may be looking for specific courses and program locations, advisors understand how important it is to have experienced staff working to resolve any problems that may arise during a student's time abroad.

ISA offers programs specifically for high school students, internships, and volunteer programs. What makes these varied programs ISA quality programs?

Having talented and experienced staff join ISA's different departments allows us to grow in expertise when we develop a new abroad opportunity for students. In addition, maintaining a close, collaborative environment among everyone at ISA allows us to utilize the experience and benefits of the ISA infrastructure to provide the same high level of support for the students abroad, no matter their program.

ISA has a reputation for high student satisfaction. What makes study abroad students like a program?

Each student has their own goals when they go abroad. We have a large number of staff because it is important to us that each student gets the attention they deserve and we can help them meet their individual goals. Of course, our primary goal is education. We have outcomes that we would like students to achieve, and we do our best to ensure that students learn as much as possible during their time abroad. So it is doubly satisfying for us to provide programs that focus on education that students also enjoy!

Many study abroad providers do not have staff on site and rely on local university staff. Does ISA have its own staff at every site abroad?

I can't imagine being able to ensure any sort of quality, student safety, or help students to achieve learning objectives without having staff on-site. Some people have a perception that by having on-site staff that students are having their hands-held and that they somehow will not learn how to do things on their own. Just as we need professors to teach our students in the classroom, we need study abroad professionals to prepare and support students during their time abroad. Not only does research show that it facilitates increased intercultural competence while abroad, but it provides a much-needed layer of health and safety support that should be essential for all students going abroad.

What things does ISA do to maximize cultural immersion abroad for students?

All ISA programs include regular, local activities throughout the students' time abroad. These activities are designed to increase students' understanding of their host community. In addition, all of our programs include a number of excursions outside of their host city in order to teach students about their host country. Our Academic Affairs department is working with our staff abroad to explicitly define learning objectives for all cultural activities and excursions, which are provided to students and include assessment questions. We also provide volunteer opportunities and organize a community day each semester, create formal language exchanges with local students, provide students with information on local events every week, hold regular meetings with students to discuss and reflect on their experiences, and place our students in housing that offers opportunities to interact with the local population.

ISA has been offering specific programs for Christian students through Veritas. Why do Christians need their own programs?

Veritas Christian Study Abroad is a division of ISA that was created to facilitate a study abroad experience for students who bring with them a specific perspective and often different academic needs. The U.S. has a large number of Christian-affiliated colleges and universities, many of which have religion-based academic requirements. Most of that curriculum cannot be found at universities abroad, making it challenging for these students to go abroad and still graduate on time.

In addition, providing an opportunity for students who hold their faith as a significant part of their identity to come together and receive support and guidance that is specific to them makes a better experience for the students and the host community. This is why Veritas has partnered with Pacific Lutheran University to provide specific courses for these students while they are abroad, as well as designed a mandatory practicum course to focus the students' eagerness to serve their host community in a productive way. 

ISA has some study abroad programs in some interesting and non-traditional destinations including Korea, Jordan, and Fiji.  Are there a lot of students who want to study in Fiji?

When offering a new study abroad program, student demand is only one factor that we look at. If we see an opportunity to provide a unique program that offers something new and that we believe will benefit the students and the host community, we will develop it and do everything we can to make it work. So while the number of students who study abroad in Fiji won't be as high as those going to Spain, that doesn't mean that either experience is more valid than the other. Each has its own benefits and fits different types of students. As we all work to increase capacity in study abroad, offering so-called "non-traditional" destinations is key to achieving that goal.

GlobaLinks, another respected study abroad provider recently merged with ISA, what does this mean for ISA? For the field of study abroad? For your students?

What this means is that two organizations with long histories in this field have come together and learned a lot from each other over the past 10 months. This has provided major opportunities to improve various aspects of both of our different programs by taking the best of both and applying it where it makes sense. For example, we have added nearly a dozen staff in Australia and New Zealand to better match ISA's model of on-site support.

Likewise, we have recently revised and adopted the Discovery Model that was originally development by GlobaLinks to provide a more focused curriculum-style approach to on-site support. For the field, this means that our U.S. affiliates only have one application process and program model to work with for all of our combined programs, which makes their lives easier. And the students benefit the most as we learn from this experience and continue to make improvements and advancements to our programs, increasing their effectiveness and creating more opportunities for our students.