GoAbroad Interview

Rich Kurtzman - Executive Director

Rich Kurtzman - Executive Director

Rich Kurtzman is the Executive Director of Barcelona Study Abroad Experience (BSAE), a study and internship provider based in Barcelona, Spain. With a graduate degree in Spanish Applied Linguistics from the University of Illinois – Chicago, Rich has been a resident of Barcelona since 2002 though he is originally from Chicago. Teacher, presenter, and program organizer are all a part or Rich’s extensive background and experience. His studies of Spanish and Russian led him toward the field of international education, and he has been in the field ever since.

Rich cooking up a mean paella for 15 students.
Rich cooking up a mean paella for 15 students.

You studied Spanish and Russian at Illinois Wesleyan University as an undergrad. Where did your interest in these two languages come from?

People always ask me if I grew up with other languages because of my love of learning them, but the only Spanish my mom speaks is hola, gracias, café con leche, and that´s it. I started studying Spanish in 7th grade because that’s what you did back then and it came easy to me so I continued on through college. My freshman year at Illinois Wesleyan University I had an extra class to take, so I decided to try Russian since my sister was studying abroad in St. Petersburg. I was hooked. Next thing I knew I was organizing a summer study abroad in St. Petersburg too!

The highlight of studying these two languages has to be when I took an upper division Russian class while studying abroad in Madrid. If you didn’t understand in Russian, you had to get the explanation in Spanish. 

You’ve taught Spanish to international students, you’ve directed study abroad programs, and acted as resident director in Spain. What is the most important lesson you learned as a teacher, which you now use at BSAE?

While teaching, I learned the importance of really getting to know each student as an individual. That is the great thing about teaching is that you get to know the students so well through the classes and homework assignments. When you do that, you can tailor a program to their needs and interests, which is what we try to do at Barcelona SAE even though I’m not currently teaching.

You are an American expat married to a Brit, with a young son. Is your son Catalán first?

Our son is only 15 months old, so I’m not sure he’s old enough to know yet, but the cultural identity confusion will come soon. We speak to him in English at home (my wife speaks in British English and I in American English), he goes to daycare five days a week in Catalan, and he hears us speaking Spanish with our friends and out-and-about. He’ll be trilingual by the time he’s four years old – one of the amazing things about living in Barcelona and a truly bilingual city. 

You have worked for many of the prestigious larger study abroad organizations in Spain, how does Barcelona SAE differ from those programs?

I have learned a great deal from the other companies I worked with and respect them tremendously. Barcelona SAE is unique in that we are the Barcelona specialists and focus all of our resources on this fabulous Mediterranean capital. Because we specialize in one geographic region, we can keep our costs low to students and we can include more cultural activities than most others. For instance, we have weekly cultural activities that range from getting to know a different neighborhood of the city, to a cultural dinner with a local mentor eating pulpo (octopus), to salsa dancing classes and Spanish cooking classes.

Your study abroad focus seems to be on acculturation and providing cultural immersion for your students. Barcelona is a popular destination for study abroad students and interns; how do you provide cultural immersion surrounded by so many international students?

One of our main areas of expertise is increasing the students’ cultural immersion and awareness. Barcelona is a city that you can fall in love with after spending just a couple hours there – the social atmosphere, the gorgeous scenery, the food, the beach, the mountains, the city’s activities and so on. This is why it’s such a popular destination for not just US study abroad, but it’s a top destination for European university students on exchange programs. The thing about Barcelona is that there is more than meets the eye and I’ve gotten to see that over the last 12 years living there.

All of the on-site staff are so passionate about what Barcelona has to offer and it is obvious to all of our students. This passion is what makes it so easy for us to bring that to the students and fit it into every aspect of Barcelona SAE programming.

What did your own study abroad experience as an undergrad in Illinois mean to you?

I had never left the country until I studied abroad as a sophomore in St. Petersburg, Russia. That experience opened my eyes to how narrow our views can be if we don´t get out and experience other cultures. This means: finding meaningful interaction with people of other cultures, learning new languages, getting lost, struggling with and then overcoming culture shock.

My own experiences showed me the beauty of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. I love that first feeling of confusion and challenge when entering a new culture, then getting to the point where it feels comfortable.

Did your parents support you in your study abroad dreams? Do they support you living abroad?

I think my parents just want me to be happy and they know that living abroad, and especially in Barcelona, is what makes me happy. They support the opportunities that I have and the opportunities that Barcelona SAE is giving so many students to live their dreams. And, let’s face it; Barcelona is a great place for them to visit. 

If you hadn’t studied overseas in Spain and Russia, what other country would have been at the top of your list?

Where to begin?! My work as an intercultural consultant helping executives from multinational companies from around the world makes me want to visit every country they come from. I have worked with men and women from about 15 different countries and I would love to jump on a plane right now and visit any one of them.

But if I had to choose one, at the top of my list would probably be China. It’s a culture that has always fascinated me and I’ve heard from other Americans who have lived there that it’s very hard to acclimate. I want to experience that and observe it for myself. I’ve also been practicing a martial art that comes from China for about 7 years – it´s called Wing Chun Kung Fu. I’d love to go there and have them show me how it’s done.

The majority of college students studying in Spain are women, why should more guys study abroad?

Why don’t more guys study abroad? It’s a question that I haven’t been able to answer. Why wouldn't you see the world while it’s logistically so easy? Improve your resume with the skills you gain while abroad? Build intense, life-long friendships? Learn a new language? Become more independent? Challenge yourself? More guys should study abroad for the same reasons everyone should study abroad! Come on guys, this is your chance.