Carmelo Urza and USAC: An international reach and a human touch

After 35 years of success, founding director of USAC is retiring

Carmelo Urza, founding director of USAC, is retiring after 35 years at the helm. Photo below: Urza with USAC students from the Pau, France program.


8/30/2017 | By: John Trent |

Carmelo Urza is far too unassuming of a person to take credit for the success of the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC).

In conversation with Urza, you're always struck by his self-effacing sense of humor, his sincere, almost shy smile and his ability, on almost every occasion when asked about USAC, to talk not about himself but of the indispensable work that is done by USAC staff in Reno and throughout the world.

When contacted earlier this summer about writing a story about his tenure first as director and then president/CEO of USAC - a tenure that began in 1982 and will come to a close on Aug. 31 with his retirement and the grand opening of a new USAC Annex on Virginia Street - his first reaction was, "Are you really sure you want to write about me and not the program?"

This is an attempt to do both. Because the two, the director and the program, have become inextricably linked over the course of more than three decades, and tens of thousands of participating students.

Urza was part of a program that brought students to the Basque Country in 1974 - which would serve as the inspiration for what has become a global program which sends more than 4,000 students annually to universities in nearly 30 countries around the world.

Looking back, once the decision was made by the University of Nevada, Reno and Boise State (which had sent students to the Basque Country in 1974) to begin USAC in 1982, he says it's a little surprising to consider how far the program has come.

"My goal was to create a viable, ongoing program in the Basque Country," says Urza, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Hispanic Literature and is author of "Solitude: Symbolism in the National Basque Monument." He notes that in addition to the 1970s summer program to the Basque Country run by the University (and before that, an effort in the late 1960s by the Basque Studies Program to send students to study), there was a similar program at Boise State that began in 1974. "So although there were moments when I would fantasize (about growing the program), for the most part it was a struggle to survive. It took me about a year to realize that organizing one program was not likely to survive."

From initial struggle came the desire to stretch, to grow, and to do more. His approach became a mix of pragmatic economies of scale and an entrepreneurial zest to test established limits.

Carmelo Urza with students in Pau France

"It was this realization that took us down the path of doing more," he says. "We simply needed more programs in order to achieve the necessary economies of scale, more efficient use of our scarce resources and an even broader recruiting base if we were to have a chance at succeeding."

There have been numerous key individual acts and early institutional alliances that helped pave the way for USAC's success. But perhaps the most important acts came early. William Douglass, the founder of the Basque Studies Program at the University, a member of the Nevada Writer's Hall of Fame and world-renowned Basque scholar, and the late Pat Bieter, a professor at Boise State from 1969-1995 who was instrumental in founding and facilitating several Basque cultural initiatives in Idaho and throughout the West, were two instrumental figures in USAC's development.

Douglass had been recruited by the legendary Nevada writer Robert Laxalt to become the first director of the groundbreaking Basque Studies Program at the University in the late 1960s. And it was Bieter who took the group of students that included Urza as a faculty member to Onati in the Basque Country in 1974. Both men, widely respected and with enormous abilities to gather resources and support for the study of Basque history and culture, played pivotal roles in the creation of USAC.

"It's simple," Urza says. "Had it not been for Bill Douglass at UNR and Pat Bieter at Boise State, there would not be a USAC. They chose to join forces in order to develop an ongoing program."

Working together, Douglass and Bieter convinced their respective university presidents, Joe Crowley at the University and John Barnes at Boise State, to each chip in $7,500.

"I once made the comment to Joe about how much of a bang he has gotten for his money and he responded, 'Well, it wasn't easy to find $7,500!'" Urza says. "I'm grateful for that leap of faith and his continued interest. Bill has been a great advisor for more than three decades and I still go to him regularly."

Since that time, Urza has been proud that the University has continued to understand USAC's importance to its institutional mission. The University's mission statement is clear on this point, noting that the "University recognizes and embraces the critical importance of diversity in preparing students for global citizenship."

Urza says current University President Marc Johnson has done a good job of carrying on a tradition started by Crowley, who was a clear supporter of USAC and its value in contributing to the University's educational mission.

"Marc Johnson has understood USAC's value to the University and the importance of his support," Urza says. "He and (wife) Karen sometimes travel abroad during their summer vacations and often times visit a USAC site to meet the director and faculty and to chat with UNR students. I think he has visited five or six sites."

Adds Johnson: "Carmelo's work over the years has been extraordinary. When you think about the number of students USAC has influenced, not only in terms of the studies they've done, but in terms of the broadening of their perspectives and their understanding of an increasingly complicated and interconnected world, it's simply a tribute to the success of USAC, and Carmelo's vision for USAC. We want to produce global citizens who are keenly aware of people from foreign lands and their cultures. USAC has been an excellent vehicle for us to help accomplish that.

"Carmelo, truly, has been an outstanding leader in that effort. He and USAC have had an enormous influence on the kinds of graduates we produce."

Another individual whose work helped USAC gain early traction was Sandra Ott. Ott, now co-director of the University's Center of Basque Studies, was brought in to help implement the program overseas in 1982.

"Sandy heroically put her shoulder to the proverbial wheel and made a success of the San Sebastian program ... making it up as we went along," Urza says. "In retrospect, I realize how little assistance she had in bringing the program to life. Sandy reached out to the locals, many of whom were eager to help and created extraordinary authentic experiences for participating students."

It was studies abroad education on the fly, in a sense. Spain was emerging from the death of longtime dictator General Francisco Franco a few years earlier, and there was an enormous transition occurring as Spain made its first steps toward democracy. The University of the Basque Country, USAC's host university in the early 1980s (and still host two USAC programs today, one in San Sebastian and one in Bilbao), had just been created. Office space was hard to find.

"Dr. Gregorio Monreal, the first Rector, was a law professor," he says. "In order to make room for us, he moved to the administrative building, and ceded his law office to Sandy to use as the program office."

Gradually, through the development of relationships and agreements with several European universities, USAC began its path of sustained growth - always keenly aware to never over-extend, knowing full well that international events, as well as monetary and financial crises, could erase any hard-earned gains. If there has been a constant to USAC expansion, it has been that often the most established programs are those in some of the least likely locales.

"Generally, we have established programs in unusual locations," Urza says. "Even today, we continue to be the only U.S. program in places like San Sebastian, Basque Country/Spain (1983), Pau, France (1985), Torino, Italy (1987) and other sites. We prefer those smaller, more authentic locations than places like Florence that hosts dozens of U.S. universities and many, many thousands of tourists.

"We look for host universities that are eager to internationalize their campuses with the advent of students from the U.S. and from the many other countries with whom we work."

Developing strong, personal relationships with the administrators, faculty and staff at many of the partner universities has proven critical to USAC's success. This has helped both USAC and its partner institutions leverage shared resources and ideas in order to keep the experiences of USAC students at a consistently high level.

"In addition to the local people who work on campus for the host university, our students can count on the more than 300 USAC Resident Directors, faculty and staff around the world," Urza says. "There are about 80 U.S. faculty from USAC's 33 affiliate universities who teach abroad with us each year, gaining professional development and international experience and perspective which they bring back to their home U.S. university. "We have ALL created this organization."

USAC's reach is a bit staggering. The 33 affiliate universities, the 100-plus network universities, the 50 or so host universities abroad and the consulates in the U.S. that issue visas to more than 4,400 students annually represents a far-ranging network of processes and procedures that thanks to Urza's vision and the commitment of all those who are involved somehow still manages to retain a very personal and intimate ethos.

"We work hard at creating a family atmosphere amongst the many stakeholders," Urza says. "This part is personal. You can't phony-up genuine relationships. The bottom line is that we have developed long-standing friends who know who we are and why we exist and who are willing to champion our cause in the future."

Ah yes. The future. In many ways, USAC is stronger than ever. Urza's retirement comes at a time when USAC's influence continues to grow across the globe, and continues to expand in northern Nevada.

For years, USAC personnel have been housed in the Virginia Street Gym. It was inevitable that the space would prove to be too small for such a vibrant, growing organization. A grand opening event for USAC's new annex, a sleek, bright, modern-looking building sitting across the street from the Virginia Street Gym, at 1317 Virginia Street, will be held on Aug. 31 from 3-6 p.m.

"We hope to move three departments into the new annex," Urza says. "Since it sits on one of the busiest streets in Reno, especially for University students and activities, we hope it helps us get on the community's radar. "1317 Virginia Street will be our 'coming of age' identity. The headquarters will remain on campus."

With the annex's grand opening on Aug. 31, Urza's duties as director will come to a close. In June, Alyssa Nota was named President/CEO of University Studies Abroad Consortium and has been handling the day-to-day operations of the organization since then.

Nota joined USAC in 2000 as the Resident Director (RD) and was tasked managing the Torino program. Later, she created three new programs in Italy: Viterbo in 2006, Reggio Emilia in 2014, and Verona in 2016. She transitioned into a Regional RD position where she managed all four Italy programs, including overseeing the study abroad experience of 700-plus students annually. She was instrumental in the selection of program sites, curriculum, and host institution arrangements. This past year in Italy, she managed 15 full-time staff, 100+ faculty members, and a budget exceeding $2 million Euros.

Mindful of the proven perspective and sage advice that were offered up by people such as William Douglass to him as a young director of a fledgling international  consortium of universities, Urza will be available to Nota to provide "advice on an ad hoc basis and I'm excited about continuing to help the Consortium succeed."

Beyond such help, Urza says 35 years in the driver's seat of the success of USAC, has been enough. The time, he says, has flown by, and he's content with the work he has done.

In many ways, Urza's story, like USAC's, has been intriguing and remarkable. As an immigrant boy he grew up on a sheep ranch in southwestern Idaho, just off the Snake River. His father, out of necessity for a few years, was a sheepherder, and he and his brother grew up hunting, trapping and riding horses on their ranch. In the summer, he came to understand the ways of the herders by living their life. His parents would send Urza, from the ages of 9-13, into the Saw Tooth Mountains with a herder, camp-tender and hand. "I was probably more of a pain than assistance," he says, with a laugh.

He would sometimes go days not seeing anyone else but the two herders with whom he shared the responsibility of managing the flock. Eventually his family moved into town. As he grew up he matriculated to education.  He earned his undergraduate degree from Boise State, his master's from the University, his Ph.D. from Iowa, became a scholar and wrote journal articles and books. He became director of one of the most intriguing success stories the University of Nevada, Reno has ever seen.

"I have always argued to my friends at the business school the lack of respect 'luck' gets," says the man who has friends across the globe, on countless university campuses and has helped link the education of thousands of students to a more empathetic understanding of our world. "I have always considered myself lucky in more ways than I can count."

There are numerous achievements and milestones that USAC has attained during Urza's tenure, including how true USAC has always remained to its mission to serve the study abroad internationalization needs of its affiliate universities, offering quality programs at a reasonable fee; the sense that the organization was "always moving the ball forward and I think that made it exciting and fun for all of us - change was in our DNA"; and the fact that universities USAC has worked with over the years have always considered the organization trustworthy, dependable and competent.

Yet, it's messages like the one below that truly speak to USAC's success. They're a reminder that although Urza has never sought attention or the limelight, his quiet, genuine and consistent emphasis on building meaningful relationships throughout the world has meant that those students participating in USAC come away having experienced something very special - something they will always remember, and something that will inform their view of education and the world for the rest of their lives:

"Dear USAC, I wasn't sure exactly who to send this to but I needed to write this.

I studied abroad in San Ramón, Costa Rica in the fall of 2015. To make a long story short, it was the most fantastic experience of my life. My host family was nothing short of fantastic. The friends I made have remained some of my closest. The pictures I took fill my walls and photo albums and the memories I made are some of my most cherished ones. I could go on singing praises but I want to tell you what happened after my study abroad program. It had been about a year and I really wanted to go back and visit my friends and family.

I was homesick for San Ramón. My sister agreed to take a winter break trip with me and we spent several days at my host family's house. We had a marvelous time, and I got the chance to show my sister some of my favorite places, people, and food. The USAC site staff were out of the office for the break but I was still able to see some of my old teachers and cafeteria ladies! On the last day of our trip, at 9:00pm, while eating dinner in the hostel, a girl asked us to watch her food while she went to the bathroom. She returned and ended up sitting with us because she was all alone. We started talking and she told me that she had just finished up a 6-month naturalist guide internship in the Monteverde Cloud Forest as a naturalist guide. As an ecology major, I found this possibility exhilarating! She told me all about it, all she learned, the people she worked with, etc. Needless to say, I stayed up until 2:00am the morning I returned from Costa Rica to finish my application!

A few weeks later I got an interview and a week after that I got the position.  I leave tonight for my Costa Rica internship and I thought it was only appropriate that I contact USAC to say thank you. If it weren't for you, I never would have gone to Costa Rica in the first place. If I hadn't gone, I wouldn't have gone back. And if I hadn't gone back, I never would have found this incredible internship opportunity.

USAC, it's because of you that I have connections around the world, an appreciation for travel, meeting new people, and trying new foods. It's because of you that I am able to expand my professional experience and use this to get a dream job! I wanted to tell you my story and let you know that I am so grateful for what you do. You truly make a difference in peoples' lives and in their futures.

I will always look back fondly at my first trip abroad and I hope that there are many more to come!

Thank you USAC, Michaela Rubenstein (USAC San Ramón Fall 2015)"

When one reads an e-mail message like the one above, which is emblematic of the more than 50,000 students who over the years have studied abroad with USAC, there can be only one conclusion. Carmelo Urza is a lucky man indeed.

"So many of our students have become stellar citizens: teachers, judges, doctors, professors, and just good people," Urza says. "I am still friends with many of them. I believe there is a common thread that runs through many of them - a wish to improve oneself, a need for adventure, to test themselves, and a desire to contribute to society, a form of altruism really."      

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