Meet Kurt Stache (IES Abroad Freiburg | 1987-88), Senior Vice President of Marketing and Loyalty at American Airlines, and our April Alum of the Month.
Kurt grew up in Central America and speaks Spanish, German, and English fluently. He received a Bachelor of Science in Finance from Santa Clara University and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. After working in both Germany and Honduras as a young adult, Kurt has held a variety of leadership positions throughout American Airlines.
In our interview, Kurt discusses how study abroad impacted his career path and weighs in on the importance of learning a foreign language in today’s competitive job market.
IES Abroad: How did you choose to study abroad in Germany for a full year?
Kurt Stache: Having studied German in high school and college, I thought the best way to become fluent would be to study at a German University taking courses in German with local students. My alma mater, Santa Clara University, offered a program through IES Abroad at the University of Freiburg in Germany’s beautiful Black Forest region. The format of this particular program was just right for what I had hoped to accomplish with a study abroad experience.
IES Abroad: As you think back on your year in Freiburg, what are some of your most significant memories?
KS: Some of the most significant memories from my year in Freiburg relate to the many fascinating people I met during my time there, as well as the perspective I gained both on life back home, and on my host country. One of the highlights was sharing a dorm with German and international students in one of the typical German student housing facilities on the edge of the Black Forest and experiencing life of a German university student the way the local students do.
I still have fond memories of my remarkable Political Science professor who was a former delegate to the German parliament. He made it possible for my classmates and me to meet Germany’s Chancellor Kohl and some of his cabinet members.
Of course, given Freiburg’s location in the heart of Europe, I loved the opportunities for skiing, hiking, and travelling and was able to visit some of the most interesting places in Europe throughout my year in Freiburg. Thirty years later, I am still in touch with friends I made during my IES Abroad experience.
IES Abroad: Can you point to specific skills that you built on or developed when you studied abroad in Germany?
KS: After living and studying abroad in Germany for an entire school year, my German skills improved significantly. Beyond the language skills, however, what benefited me a lot throughout my life since that time are an enhanced cultural awareness and a sense of self-reliance and independence.
Additionally, ever since my time in Germany I continue to have a fascination with exploring new cultures and places and getting to know people from around the world.
IES Abroad: What was it about your experience in Freiburg that made you want to return to Germany and work full time after college?
KS: While in Freiburg, I thoroughly enjoyed the German culture and its people, not to mention the food! The IES Abroad experience opened my eyes to the many exciting opportunities for working abroad. Upon graduation, the option of returning to Germany seemed a lot more rewarding than taking a job in the United States. I wanted to put my German skills to use and continue exploring Europe. A job opportunity in the northern city of Bremen with a Latin American import/export bank was a great fit because it allowed me to build on my German skills and also use my English and Spanish. As an added bonus, shortly after I arrived in Bremen, I met a lovely German lady. Birgit and I have been married for more than 20 years. My wife and I take our two kids back to Germany every summer for a visit with the grandparents and cousins.
IES Abroad: You began your career in banking, but ultimately chose to work in the airline industry. What interested you early on and what continues to fascinate you about this industry?
KS: After having worked in Germany and Honduras for several years, I decided to pursue an MBA and switch industries. My fascination with travel and long-standing interest in aviation led me to American Airlines, where I started 20 years ago. The airline industry is a fast-paced, complex, and highly competitive global business. It attracts very talented and globally-minded individuals, many of whom very much resemble the characteristics of the IES Abroad students I have met along the way. The airlines industry is an engine for the global economy, and it brings people and cultures closer to one another. I feel very privileged to be part of an industry that affects so many people’s lives.
IES Abroad: You speak Spanish, English, and German fluently. What role have languages played in your personal and professional life?
KS: Speaking one or more foreign languages has in many ways defined my personal and professional life. On the personal side, speaking Spanish and German has opened up the opportunities to connect in a more meaningful way to people in other countries. I have wonderful non-English-speaking friends in both Germany and Latin America who I wouldn’t be able to connect with were it not for my foreign language skills.
We speak German in our home to give our kids the benefit of growing up bilingually. While German is not offered in their schools, both kids are taking Spanish at school, and we feel strongly that this aspect of their education is among the most practical and useful classes they can take.
On the professional side, being multi-lingual has opened up opportunities to work overseas, build stronger relationships with foreign counterparts and develop a deeper understanding of my co-workers from other parts of the world.
While one could argue that nowadays the global business language is English, I see a distinct benefit of making the effort to learn a foreign language. In my experience, speaking another language deepens the relationships with my counterparts and helps build stronger understanding and greater trust, which has undoubtedly helped me in my career.
IES Abroad: Foreign language study in the United States has decreased over the past few years. In terms of career planning, how important is it for English speakers to learn a foreign language?
KS: Learning a foreign language is hard work. For many of us, it doesn’t come easy, and it involves a lot of dedication. The discipline required in learning a foreign language is a characteristic that will set apart two otherwise similarly qualified job candidates. Beyond that, however, having studied a foreign language will make you a better business person based on the broader perspective, sense of humility and cultural awareness you develop when studying a foreign language. Foreign language proficiency will open up career opportunities that will otherwise remain closed.
IES Abroad: Our world has globalized at an astonishing pace over the past 20 years. What advice would you give to college students today who would like to become the global leaders of tomorrow?
KS: To be successful in our increasingly interconnected global business world, my advice to students is to take advantage of any opportunity to experience other cultures, be it via study abroad programs, international travel, or hosting foreign exchange students here at home. Learning foreign languages is integral to that process. The more students can broaden their college experience by interacting with people from other parts of the globe, the more prepared they will be for the global business world.
Electing classes that address international topics and getting involved in international clubs on campus is another way to increase exposure to the world beyond the United States. In my experience, however, the best way to truly gain a global perspective is to live abroad. It is difficult to gain a truly global mindset unless you leave your familiar and comfortable surroundings and immerse yourself in a foreign country.
IES Abroad: We have nearly 120,000 IES Abroad alumni now. Many of them still love to travel abroad as often as they can. In your role heading up American Airlines Strategic Alliances and the Marketing Loyalty program, what travel tips can you share with today’s international air traveler?
KS: Being able to travel is a wonderful privilege. The world has never been more accessible and affordable. In my mind, though, it is not just about checking sights and buildings on your list. The best memories are often those involving people – local individuals who you meet along the way. Take time to get to know the people in the places you are visiting. Travel is about bringing together cultures, experiencing our shared humanity, and developing a deeper understanding of what connects us as people. Enjoy the journey!
How are IES Abroad students preparing to become tomorrow's global leaders? Hear about the study abroad journeys of our Freiburg student bloggers, and learn more about our study abroad Germany programs.