Like a Fish in Water: How to Grow Abroad When You Go Abroad

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An Interview with Author Rich Kurtzman

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“Learning to feel comfortable in places and situations that previously felt uncomfortable helps us grow more confident, adaptable, worldly, and empathetic.”

Tell us about yourself and your experience in the study abroad field.

rich kurtzman
Rich Kurtzman is the author of Like a Fish in Water: How to Grow Abroad When You Go Abroad

I am originally from a suburb of Chicago, Illinois and I never left the US until I was 20 years old. In fact, I didn’t get a passport until I needed one to study abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. Once I got that first taste of life in another culture and country that was so different from what I was used to, I was hooked.

After my summer in Russia, I did a semester abroad in Madrid, Spain, then I got a job working in Chicago with a study abroad company where my job was to get paid to do what I was essentially doing for free—convince other students to study abroad!

My appetite for living in other countries wasn’t satiated yet so I took a summer off to lead a high school program to Spain, then the following summer I did an internship with a study abroad program in Milan, Italy, and again the next summer, I went back to Spain with another group of students. (Can you see a pattern forming here?) 

After I earned my Masters degree in Spanish Applied Linguistics, I got a job in Barcelona working as academic and cultural coordinator for a study abroad program. I worked there for about four years before starting to teach Culture classes with yet another program, and working as a Cultural Consultant to Business Executives for a different company. 

Then I realized that with all of that great experience, it was time to start my own study abroad company specializing in this city, Barcelona, that I loved and offered so much to everyone who spends even one hour here.  

What inspired and/or motivated you to write Like a Fish in Water?

My entire professional career of almost 25 years has been spent in International Education, almost exclusively working directly with students abroad. I recently calculated that in all of my different programs, I have worked alongside about 10,000 students having these life-changing experiences.

My job is incredibly rewarding; I get to witness students grow through the challenges—the ups and downs—of studying and living abroad. 

But I have also seen too many students that didn’t know what they should be doing to experience the magic of study abroad. They might need a little push, and some extra support, to get out of their comfort zones and then reflect on those experiences.

Study after study shows that guided reflection is the key. Gaining the incredible skills you can gain through study abroad doesn’t happen just by going, but if they don’t know what they have to do, how can I help? 

So I wanted to put everything that I have learned along the way into one book that guides students from before they even get on the plane, to while they are living in other cultural waters, to when they get home and want to incorporate all the skills they’ve acquired and strengthened. 

What inspired the title of the book?

The title comes from something I think about a lot, (I am an American, married to a woman from England, living in Spain)—which is how and when you fit in, and how and when you stick out. I am fascinated with what it is about our behaviors and thoughts that sometimes make us feel like a fish out of water.

I wanted to turn that around with a positive spin and talk about how to feel like a Fish in Water.  Learning to feel comfortable in places and situations that previously felt uncomfortable helps us grow more confident, adaptable, worldly, and empathetic. 

What piece of advice would you give your pre-travel self?

I would say: Read this book called Like a Fish in Water: How to Grow Abroad When You Go Abroad! Ha. 

If I could talk to my pre-travel self before I went abroad for the first time, I would say: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and to get out of my comfort zone. Making mistakes is the best way to learn and it gives us great stories to laugh about later.

Also, so many students don’t make much progress in their language skills because they are too afraid to make mistakes—which means they don’t engage, they don’t practice. If you make a mistake, it doesn’t matter! If you order fish ice cream instead of peach ice cream (which I did), get over the strange faces people make at you and laugh about it. 

Another piece of advice: I think that most goals of anyone going abroad will be achieved through meeting as many locals as possible, so I would tell myself to go out and meet as many people as possible and engage with them.

It will help you learn the language better, learn more about the culture, learn about yourself and find out tips and practical information from people who know. 

What would you say to someone who is nervous to study abroad?

I would say that it’s normal to feel nervous. You’re going to live in a place where you might not know the language (yet), know your way around (yet), and you might feel like a fish out of water (at first).

But then all of that can change, and when you start to see how you are able to adapt, make progress, and make the uncomfortable start to feel comfortable, it will get you hooked and set you up for a life of seeking out life-changing challenges and new experiences.

What advice do you have for students abroad experiencing culture shock?

I would say that it’s a good sign! It means that they are actually getting into the local culture and not just living a life they could have lived back home. Also, it means that when they get through those tough times, they will feel so confident in their abilities to get through other challenges that life may throw at them in the future. 

Then I would suggest that they write down how, and what, they are feeling, and what’s making them feel that way. These provide good stories later on and it also helps them see how much they’ve grown. When they look back later, they’ll see they’ve been able to get over those challenges.

How have you seen the study abroad field grow and evolve over time and throughout your career?

The field has grown immensely since I started working in study abroad in 1998! It’s wonderful to see that so many more students are getting the opportunity to open their minds and expand their horizons through study abroad. 

The field has changed since a few decades ago in that now almost no one studies abroad for an entire year anymore. There are many more shorter programs of a semester, summer, one month, or even 10-day customized faculty-led programs. This has increased accessibility for students who couldn’t afford (in time or money) to study on longer programs.

There has also been an increase in programs that are run virtually, whether that’s a virtual internship, or a study abroad that is partially, or completely, done virtually. COVID-19 forced us all to offer these types of programs and now it remains to be seen whether this will continue in the future or die out with the return of in-person experiences.

Are there issues in the field of international education that you feel still need to be addressed?

Absolutely. We need to be hyper conscious of the carbon footprint we are contributing to with all of the flights we take—not just our students, but as professionals when we travel to conferences, school visits, etc. 

Fortunately, there is a growing movement among programs and educators about how to make study abroad more sustainable, although a lot more work has to be done. The sustainability refers not just to the carbon footprint but the justice and equality aspects as well.

In international education, we have a powerful platform to educate a future generation of students about the sustainability practices of the rest of the world and what we can learn from them. 

Another major issue that needs to be addressed has to do with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We all know that students who study abroad gain incredibly important skills (I call them Cultural Superpowers in my book) that help them get a job and eventually get paid more. If only students who are already privileged in this world get to study abroad, and others don’t, then we are creating an even bigger equality gap. I’d like to see education abroad help to close that gap. 

A positive movement is the growth of DEI initiatives at universities and program providers alike. I’m proud that Barcelona SAE just won the GoAbroad award for Innovation in Diversity for our TODOS (The Outcomes Based Diversity Outreach Strategy) program.

There is a long way to go to make study abroad equitable and inclusive for everyone, but it’s encouraging to see how front and center this discussion is.

“If only students who are already privileged in this world get to study abroad, and others don’t, then we are creating an even bigger equality gap. I’d like to see education abroad help to close that gap.”

Recently, it’s felt like there’s been a shift in international education, with a push to intern abroad over study abroad. Why is it still important for students to study abroad? What kind of value can students expect from their study abroad experience in terms of professional growth?

I am a big believer in the power of study AND intern abroad. I was lucky enough to do both as a student and to work with both study abroad and intern abroad students throughout my career and I can see the benefits of both. 

In the book, I talk about the 10 Cultural Superpowers that I believe can be born and boosted while abroad—both for study abroad and intern abroad. Originally I was going to create two lists: 

  1. Skills to become more employable and a better employee (professional growth)
  2. Skills to live a happier life (personal growth)

But the more I worked through the list, I realized that both lists have major overlap; they go hand in hand. The Cultural Superpowers are: 

  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Resilience
  • Perseverance
  • Sense of Humor
  • Self-Awareness
  • Communication
  • Curiosity
  • Confidence
  • Optimism

These can be strengthened whether a student abroad has an internship or not. Of course, an internship should also strengthen the “hard skills” like improving your skills at graphic design, marketing, engineering, etc. but companies are looking to hire people that excel at these so-called “soft skills” which are the ones I list above. 

If a student actively engages in the study abroad experience and doesn’t just skim across the surface, they will be able to gain these skills that will help them professionally. The aim of my book is to give students the tools to engage and reflect so that there is no choice but for them to grow personally and professionally.

Studying abroad soon? Purchase Like a Fish in Water: How to Grow Abroad When You Go Abroad on Amazon now!

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