The Origins of USAC

A letter written by Carmelo Urza, the founder of USAC in 2011 while celebrating 30 years of introducing students to the Basque Country, culture, and languages.

Carmelo Urza - USAC founder & directorBy 1980 the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and Boise State University (BSU) had both attempted to create ongoing study abroad programs in the Basque Country.  UNR had offered summer study, attracting enough students to create the necessary economies of scale about every third year.  In 1974-75 BSU launched its first offering, an academic year-long (two semesters) one in Onati.  It, too, was successful about every third year.  In the early 80’s, Dr. William Douglass, director of  the “Basque Studies Program”, Dr. Pat Bieter, a history professor at BSU and former director of the defunct Onati initiative began discussing how to create a sustainable program in the Basque Country.  Each convinced his respective university president, Dr. Joseph Crowley President of UNR and Dr. John Barnes of BSU to support this collaborative approach (William Jensen, the dean of Continuing Education for BSU was also instrumental).

In 1982, I was hired to create this new venture. One-time seed monies came in the form of $7,500 each from the two institutions (the BSU funds were advanced by the Lynne Fereday Foundation) and a $7,500 donation from Dr. Douglass. The new entity came to be called the University Studies Abroad in the Basque Country Consortium (USBCC).  There also was the pivotal role of Dr. Gregorio Monreal, first rector of the newly founded University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU), who offered to host the program on his Donostia campus.

Dr. Monreal offered his own office as the USBCC office, since he was now using the office of the Rector.

Dr. Sandra Ott, now co-Director of UNR’s Center for Basque Studies (CBS), was brought in to implement the first year of the program.  It was a daunting task and Sandy did a marvelous job.The initial group of 22 students arrived in September of 1983 for a two semester stay. Space was at a premium and Dr. Monreal generously relinquished use of his personal office to USAC. A summer program in Donosti was added in 1984 and another at the University of Pau in September of 1985 (Pau is the regional capital of the northern Basque provinces).  A year-long program was initiated in Leioa/Bilbao in the fall of 1995.

Basque folkdanceThe programs at all three cities are well and thriving to this day.  They have had considerable stability in their faculty and staff.  Luis Mokoroa, the Basque Cuisine teacher is still introducing university students to classical Basque dishes.  Dr. Eli Areizaga has taught for 27 years and several others for nearly as long.  After Dr. Ott, the late Dr. Felix Menchacatorre, was our resident director in Donostia until he moved to Bilbao to begin that program. Dr. Patricia O’Connor has been the RD of the Donosti program since 1995 and Robina Muller has directed the Pau Program the last two decades.Through the extraordinary dedication of the resident directors, professors and staff, the opportunities awaiting students are almost unlimited.  There are, of course, credits to be earned by taking pre-approved courses at the student’s American home university.  There are field trips to areas of cultural/historical importance, optional excursions to the capitals, internships (paid and unpaid) and volunteer opportunities.  There are also Basque dance classes and intensive courses that teach the languages of the area (Basque, French and Spanish).

students jump pick at the pryeneesOver the years, approximately 9,500 students from 711 universities have attended the USAC Basque programs and approximately 180 professors from 23 member universities in the U.S. have taught at the 3 programs. Some students had never heard of Basques before they enrolled on the USAC course.  Others are what are now called “heritage” students, those whose forefathers had emigrated to the U.S. from the Basque Country.  Traditionally, Basque culture has come to the US via immigration.  That avenue is no longer available and I believe that the experiences of these thousands of USAC students have contributed to the revitalization of Basque culture in the US.  These young Basque American university students were drawn to the Basque Country to find their roots, to connect again with family, village or town of origin.

basque culture study abroadJust as importantly, they came to experience culture first hand, including the contemporary expressions of rock bands, rapper groups and other artists and musicians.  They have been soaked by the sirimiri (fine gentle rain), they have fallen in love with the Athletic de Bilbao or the Real Sociedad soccer teams. They have lived with Basque families, learned their dances and participated in festivals.  They have made lifelong friends, walked the elegant boardwalks, and climbed the famous mountains.  Many of them have returned to the U.S. with a boyfriend or husband.  A few have stayed.

Mostly, they have come to internalize a Basque identity, informed by that knowledge and experience, to be shared with their families and communities and Basque Clubs in the US.

excursion-to-the-pyreneesAs we celebrate our 30th anniversary, we hope the students who have enrolled in the programs in Euskalherria, whether Basque or not, have been well served.  It has been an honor for me and my many caring and talented colleagues to make these programs a reality.


The USBCC evolved into USAC (University Studies Abroad Consortium).  From two founding universities, it now has grown to 33 participating American university members and offers study abroad courses in 24 countries [in 2011. As of 2013 we have 26 countries] around the world.  But it all started in Donostia 30 years ago when our entire library operated out of the trunk of Sandy Ott’s car!