Originally posted on NAFSA: Association of International Educators on March 8, 2017.
Rich Kurtzman has been working in the field of International Education since 1998 but began his journey in the field as a student in St. Petersburg in 1996. He then went on to spend a semester in Madrid, hold a summer internship in Milan, led groups of high schools students in Spain in 1999 and 2001 and has been working on-site in Barcelona since 2002 in a variety of capacities: since 2009 he has served as the Director of Barcelona Study Abroad experience but previous to that as a professor of courses such as Intercultural Communication and Global Competence, Contemporary Spanish Society, Spanish Civilization and Culture, Internship Seminar and The Culture of Food and Wine in Spain. Rich has presented three “Regional Highlight” sessions at NAFSA National including Increasing Cultural Awareness in Short-term programs: A toolkit of Activities, Helping Students Make the “Right” Decisions: Using Choice Architecture and Nudge Theories, and Using Reentry Workshops for Continued Professional and Personal Development.
Rich is the author of the chapter, “Working with Providers” for the upcoming NAFSA Guide to Successful Short-Term Education Abroad Programs (estimated publishing date 2018). Outside the realm of study abroad, Rich works as an intercultural consultant for business executives from around the world when moving from one country to another.
Mandy: What’s on your calendar for today?
RK: You’ve caught me here in the US, so that question would have a much different response were I working during a typical day in Barcelona. Since I don’t make it back stateside too often, I am taking advantage of the time I’m here to visit six partner universities in Florida. After one of my visits today where I’ll meet with the study abroad office, the Dean of the Business school, the head of Modern languages, the Career Services office, and a meeting with interested students, I will be driving four hours to a friend’s house where I will watch the Cubs win the World Series (fingers crossed)! During the drive, I will be making quite a few phone calls since I am finally on the same time zone as many of our staff and partners.
Mandy: Describe a “pivotal career moment” when you knew you were ready to move from managing education abroad programs to leading a broader internationalization strategy.
RK: This happened when me, and my co-presenter’s, NAFSA regional presentation won, for the 2nd time in a row, the Regional highlight presentation and was featured at the annual conference. I was proud that what we were bringing to international educators was so well received and so useful. That’s when I first had the idea of my “Culture Stock” newsletter where I send out tips and strategies for increasing cultural awareness. I also then decided that I wanted to help with NAFSA and Forum more so I volunteered to review proposals, attend the NAFSA leadership sessions at the annual conference, and joined more conference committees. Honestly, I am still managing programs through Barcelona SAE but the “epiphany” was that I wanted to share more strategy among a broader, international audience.
Mandy: What are a few skills you find are necessary to your role as an senior international officers (SIO)/senior education abroad (EA) professional?
RK: First, have an entrepreneurial spirit. I have been working in EA since I graduated college 18 years ago but I never wanted to be complacent and just do things because it’s the way it’s always been done. One of our core values at Barcelona SAE is “continuously improve and innovate” so we always review what went well and what could have been done better or more efficiently. Second, maintain a hunger to keep learning. No matter how long I have been in the field I can keep learning from others. Third, put yourself in the place of the students. It’s important to remember what it is like to get out of your comfort zone – to visit a new place that is unfamiliar, and go where you don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone. Only then can you truly empathize with what our students are going through.
Mandy: What are some of the major challenges you face in your role as an SIO/senior EA professional and how to you face them?
RK: One newer challenge is the work/life balance with little kids – a 3-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Before kids, I was always working late nights and on weekends, but now the desire to spend as much time as possible with my kids and my wife is challenging. I still have to travel quite a bit to the US as a part of the job, and I love that aspect, but balancing it with family time is a struggle. As my responsibilities have grown, so has this challenge.
Another challenge in my role, specifically, is balancing my duties on-site as Director with my responsibilities in the US. Being able to juggle all of the varied tasks I need to be on top of keeps me on my toes.
How do I face them? The only way I could possibly face them is with the best team possible. I have some of the best colleagues around and they have my full confidence to take on the roles that I used to have when I started out and did everything myself. Learning to let go and fully delegate was hard at first but it’s the only way forward. As for the balance with my family, I decided that time spent with them is as important as work and I prioritize both equally.
Mandy: What are a few pieces of advice you would give new and mid-career EA professionals who are looking to continue on towards eventually becoming a SIO/Senior EA Professional?
RK: To become a SIO/Senior EA Professional, I recommend meeting as many people in the field as you can. As with many things in life, it’s is about who you know. You can meet the most interesting people who have traveled the world or who have carried out fascinating research. You never know when one of those contacts will come through for you and help your career later on. Experts say that successful people in life aren’t just then ones who work the hardest; they are ones who have been lucky enough to meet the right person at the right time.
Another piece of advice is don’t be afraid to look outside of International Education for inspiration. Several years ago I went to a SIETAR (Society of Intercultural Educators, Trainers and Researchers) conference and I was amazed to see how much I learned from just looking slightly outside the field. That helped me on the path to start looking further outside to places like Behavioral Economics (Nudge session at NAFSA) and Psychology (Growth Mindset at NAFSA) and then getting inspiration from Business books. Instead of getting tunnel vision in IE, it’s good to branch out and then come back in with a new perspective.
Mandy: How has NAFSA assisted you in your role as SIO/Senior EA Professional (either with resources, events, etc.)?
RK: Barcelona SAE specifically looks to NAFSA for guidance in the field. We try to get all staff to NAFSA conferences to meet new people, keep up-to-date on current ideas, and continue learning. There hasn’t been one NAFSA regional or national conference that I’ve attended that hasn’t sparked a new interest. There’s also the social side of NAFSA: One memorable moment for me was NAFSA national in San Diego and Michael Franti– Spearhead concert. I clearly remember the sun going down in San Diego NAFSA national when we were outside at the opening ceremony with Michael Franti of Spearhead giving a concert and I was on the lawn four rows from the stage listening to one of the best concerts I’d been to in a long time, and hearing his inspirational words. I was with friends and colleagues and strangers (all those three tend to blend together at NAFSA) and really had a wonderful life moment. I thought to myself, this is like one of the study abroad “highs” our students get when they are experiencing something that will impact them for a long, long time.
Mandy: Have you worked in the US previously?
RK: Yes, but to understand how I got started there, you have to go back to my first study abroad experience back in my sophomore year in college when I studied in St. Petersburg, Russia over the summer, then I studied in Madrid for a semester with IESabroad. After I graduated, I worked with IESabroad in Chicago for two years full time and two years part-time while I earned my MA in Spanish Applied Linguistics at the University of Illinois-Chicago. IESabroad was a great company to work for and I learned so much from them. They gave me a really strong base in study abroad to be able to go on and do the other things I did like lead groups of high school students through Experiment in International Living, teach abroad, do intercultural consulting and eventually start Barcelona Study Abroad Experience.
Mandy: Where do you see yourself in 5 years or 10 years from now?
RK: I still see myself in Barcelona working with my team at Barcelona SAE but I see us branching out and not solely focusing on study abroad, internships, and faculty-led. I think we will continue to branch out into more areas of international education as well.
Personally, I would like to get back into teaching too. I truly enjoyed the classes I taught about Spanish culture, working across cultures and intercultural communication particularly. In the classroom you are even closer to those “light bulb moments” of study abroad that make this job so rewarding.
A pipe dream of mine is to be part of a study abroad movie that heightens awareness and gets even more students to study abroad.
Mandy: What do you see as current trends within education abroad?
RK: I see that there are two trends: customization and hybrid programs. We see more universities wanting their own branded programs. They are taking a standard program and tweaking it a little bit and branding it their own way. We see this both for internships and study abroad. There is also an increase in hybrid programs -combining study abroad and internships.
Mandy: What is the one thing you don’t think the field is giving enough attention to?
RK: I think that the field has paid a lot of attention to Risk Management but not enough attention to Emergency Response. With the rising frequency of terrorist attacks, when I talk to universities and program providers I don’t hear a clear response plan after incidents occur. Let me explain, for example, if you are a program based in Paris, but there is an attack in Rome, do you reach out to all of the students and have them confirm they are okay? What if that attack killed “only” three people? Or nine people? What if it was in a small city 40 minutes outside of Rome? What if it’s all over the news in the US but there’s no chance your students were there? What about if there was a bus crash in Paris, but “only” 15 people were injured and it hasn’t made the news in the US? What if Frankfurt airport has been evacuated for a possible threat but it’s a Wednesday morning when your students should be in class? What if there is a bomb far away in Istanbul? Also, how long do you wait to contact students? What if something small, but important, happens three countries over, and you reach out to students but you haven’t heard back after one hour? Three hours? Ten hours? Do you call the police in Denmark to say you have a student that won’t respond to your calls? That seems pointless. As you can see, there are a lot of questions, but not enough good answers or parameters in place.
I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this especially after last summer when it felt like there was an incident a couple times per week dispersed throughout Europe. We don’t want to frighten students more than they already are, and we don’t want to desensitize them either.
I feel that part of the education of studying abroad is having the students take a more proactive role. What Barcelona SAE has done to help with the issue is create a mandatory weekend plans form that students must fill out every Thursday to let us know if they are staying in Barcelona, or if they are traveling over the weekend. If they are traveling, they give us the details. This goes beyond the “independent travel form” that programs use where students may or may not fill out. We also make sure students know that if they hear of a major issue abroad, that they get in contact with us immediately. Both of these steps put the onus more in the hands of the students and help us keep our students safer without scaring and desensitizing them.
Mandy: What are the most pressing issues when you are abroad?
RK: When you work on-site, it feels like everything is a pressing issue! You have to be a cheerleader, a coach, a teacher, a counselor, a manager, an employee, a financial manager, and possibly a psychologist. One specific pressing issue is related to health and safety and risk management, and especially mental health these days.
Mandy: How is it different to be located abroad and work in EA?
RK: I find it so rewarding because I get to see the students from the time they arrive until they leave and watch how much they grow. When I worked in the US, I talked to them before they left and maybe, sometimes when they got back so I didn’t get to share in their excitement. It is easier to see the wonderful things that study abroad does for students when you are based abroad.
Mandy: What’s the one thing you never travel without?
RK: I have two: 1. Noise cancelling earbud headphones – they take up no space, reduce the noise on the plane, and with Audiobooks and podcasts you are set for a long flight. 2. I always bring a scarf with me on the plane because it is so versatile. I use mine as a pillow, a cover for my bald head if it’s cold, an eye patch, a blanket, a back support, a puppet for my kids, and an actual scarf.
Virginia Wesleyan College
Mandy Reinig is the Director of Study Away at Virginia Wesleyan College. She has a Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from the Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies from Ohio University. Prior to working at Virginia Wesleyan she was the Director of International Education at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Mandy has been active in NAFSA serving on Trainer Corps on the Region VIII team and the EA KC National Team. Additionally, she presents regionally, nationally, and internationally on a variety of topics.