From IWU Magazine, Fall 2011

Rich Kurtzman ’98 connects with University students in Barcelona

Kurtzman and Illinois Wesleyan students explore Tarragona, a city southwest of Barcelona. He tries to introduce students to lesser-known destinations.

Rich Kurtzman ’98 hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to travel abroad for the first time. “It can be scary and disorienting,” he says. “I know, because I’ve felt those things. Learning a new culture and a new language can be a difficult challenge, but also incredibly rewarding.”

Kurtzman now helps Illinois Wesleyan students face those same challenges. His company, Barcelona SAE (Study Abroad Experience), has partnered with Illinois Wesleyan in support of the University’s new Barcelona study-abroad program.

Kurtzman was introduced to study-abroad for the first time at IWU. A Spanish and Russian major, he studied in St. Petersburg after his sophomore year. “It was such an amazing experience,” he says. “It opened my mind to different perspectives and different ways of seeing things.”

Later, Kurtzman spent a semester in Madrid, where he fell in love with Spanish culture. “The more places that you see and the more languages that you know, the more people you are able to meet from around the globe,” he says. “To see how people live, think and act in different cultures, and to realize that there’s more than one way to view the world, that’s what I really enjoy about life abroad.”

After graduating from IWU, Kurtzman worked as a recruiter and advisor for the study-abroad company IES Abroad while completing his master’s degree in Spanish Applied Linguistics at the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 2002, he was transferred to the IES program in Barcelona. After a few years, he decided to take on a new challenge.

Kurtzman remembered the words of Minor Myers, jr., the late Illinois Wesleyan president. “He always told me, just follow your passion; do what you enjoy. I really felt I could tailor a more personalized study-abroad program to give students the same opportunities that I had, which made me fall in love with the culture of Barcelona and opened my eyes to the world. I knew there were risks in starting my own company, but I stayed focused on the potential rewards.”

Partnering with Illinois Wesleyan has been especially rewarding for Kurtzman. “I definitely feel a common bond with the students,” he says. “It was nice to be able to relate to them, to talk about things that happened on campus. I think maybe it made them feel more comfortable that one of the directors of the program is not just an American who’s living in Barcelona, but someone from their own school.”

One of the joys of Kurtzman’s job is providing experiences that defy students’ preconceptions. Many people come to Spain expecting bullfighting and sangria, he says. “Bullfighting is banned here. Sangria’s here, but it’s for the tourists. It goes against your initial expectations of where you’re going. It’s really exciting for students to see that.”

As Kurtzman plans student activities, he’s also found that smaller moments are often the ones that stick. “I’ll prepare big excursions and I’ll think that’s going to be the highlight for them, but sometimes it’s just a meal or a brief conversation during one of our activities that’s really made the biggest impact.” To promote such moments, he develops activities where, for example, students take public transportation to a particular neighborhood and then strike up conversations with residents there.

While the University’s program is designed to ease students into a new culture, Kurtzman knows that frustrations are inevitable. “Culture shock is a very normal thing to happen,” he says “But those kinds of experiences are what you look back on after four months and say, ‘I can’t believe I was so stressed out about that.’”

Helping shepherd students through difficult moments keeps Kurtzman on his toes. “I do absolutely love my job; sometimes I do think it’s dream job,” but being on call 24-7 can make for a very long day. He recalls a recent call from a student “who had locked herself out and lost her keys already on her first day here,” he recalls. “I had to leave my dinner at 9:30 at night and go and help her get into her apartment. That’s a little thing, but it’s the kind of thing that if you have a nine-to-five job, you don’t ever have to worry about.”

Since its birth three years ago, SAE has grown both in staff and in the number of students who enroll each year, from shorter-term programs to full semesters. In addition to large universities such as Berkeley and Columbia, Barcelona SAE works with smaller colleges, and is also beginning to attract students from non-American institutions. “Last summer, we had six different countries represented through internships. My goal is to have more international students, so when American students come, they’re also learning from international students who are taking classes with them.”

In addition to a busy career, Kurtzman has had plenty going on in his personal life as well. He and his wife, Kerry, were married last August in his hometown of Chicago — followed by a meal at a downtown Catalan restaurant.

“It was nice to be able to combine our two worlds: our Barcelona world with our friends and family from Chicago,” Kurtzman says. The pair met in Barcelona, although Kerry is originally from England, so additional celebrations in England and Spain followed.

Not surprisingly, the couple loves to travel; they recently returned from Portugal, and Kurtzman hopes to spend time in Mexico and Asia in the near future. “The thing is, the more you travel, the more places you want to see. My list is very long,” he says.

Though running a study-abroad program is a daily challenge, for Kurtzman, it’s well worth it. “It’s been much more work than I really planned for,” he says.

“At the same time, I knew the rewards that come with it: working with the students, going places with them, seeing how they evolve while they’re here. … It’s been a really great experience for me.”

To visit the website of Kurtzman’s company, Barcelona SAE, click here.

To return to the main Barcelona story, click here.