How I Became a Digital Nomad Without Quitting My Job

Ao Nang Beach Krabi Thailand

The “how I became a digital nomad” story you often read is; “I finally did it – I quit my job!”. I want to share a different story (my own), a story of how I managed to land my dream job right after graduating from my Master’s degree at age 23, and how I took this job remotely to become a digital nomad. The full tale contains many chapters and I hope to tell all of them with some time. Today, I want to dispel the myth that you need to quit your job in pursuit of your dream to travel or in pursuit of happiness.

My story is a story of good luck, a certain level of privilege, determination, hard work, some bad luck, and loyalty.

First, it is important to note that I did not become a digital nomad by choice. The short of it is: I worked as an expat in San Francisco and was extremely happy there; I had my dream job, I loved my colleagues, I felt at home in San Francisco (more importantly; I felt like I belonged), and I had some good friends. I did not want to leave. I left because my work authorization (OPT on an F1 student visa) expired and I lucked out of the H1B lottery. This is American legal speak for ‘visa issues’.

Of course, I still had a choice of what to do next and I chose the digital nomad route. So, here’s that story.

The challenge of finding (and keeping) a job in the US as an international student

Let me start at the beginning, which is: finding a job in the US as an international student. I was doing my master’s in San Francisco on an F1 student visa. This visa allows international students to gain work experience in two ways:

  • Curricular Practical Training or CPT: this option allows you to gain work experience while still enrolled at your school
  • Optional Practical Training or OPT: this option allows you to gain work experience after you’ve graduated from your bachelor or master program

I’ll save you the hassle of details of all the rules, but thanks to CPT I was able to do a 3-month part-time internship at Made In A Free World before I graduated, and thanks to OPT I would be allowed to work for one year in the US after graduation.

Now the challenge is this: I’m looking for a job knowing that after one year I will either need to leave, or my employer would have to sponsor me for an H1b high-skilled worker visa. This is a complicated, expensive and lengthy process with no guarantees because it entails a competitive lottery system and you would be best off to hire an expensive lawyer to help you get through the process. This is why most employers would not even consider my application, and why Hult International Business School encourages its students to meet people, build relationships (network) throughout the year and land a job through the hidden job market (jobs that aren’t posted online). Long story short, with some encouragement from my career advisor, that’s what I did and how I landed my job.

(I mean and a LOT of luck because what are the odds of me Googling my dream job (“digital marketing for social good”), finding my dream company ranking on #1, reaching out to one of the employees, them agreeing to meet me (for lunch even), 3 month’s later reconnecting with them and they’re actually just considering hiring someone like me at that exact time..?!)

Of course, in the interview, I talked with my employer about the fact that I was allowed to work on OPT for one year and then I would need an H1b visa if I wanted to stay. It was not something that I insisted on. (For me it was never about the US, it was always about the job). They told me they had prior experience with the H1b and would consider sponsoring me if all parties involved were interested in that when the time came.

Come February, I was having the best time at my job, learning a tun and my colleagues and clients were happy with me. We decided to apply for the visa. I hired a lawyer, we went through the process and submitted my application in April. Then the long wait began… (because I wasn’t going to pay a fee worth one month’s rent in San Francisco to hear back within 2 weeks)

The waiting game

I waited out April. No-one really hears back in April.

I waited out May. Some people hear back in May (those who paid the expensive fees definitely hear back in May).

I waited out June. Most people hear back in June.

I did a few Google searches for jobs in Europe to calm my nerves and was really not interested in any jobs so it did not calm my nerves and I stopped Googling jobs.

I learned about digital nomads and considered becoming one. But I was not interested in doing freelance work for random companies.

I went to an SEO conference and I met a digital nomad. In fact, she was a remote worker and worked remotely for a company in the US. I thought, maybe I can do that if I have to leave.

It was also the time that Trump was all over my Facebook newsfeed. I told the universe that if Trump was going to win the elections, I did not even want the H1b. Because I was NOT going to live in Trump’s America. But of course, Trump was not going to win the elections…. right?!

In July, I still hadn’t heard back from my lawyer. I talked to my boss. I told him, at this point, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get through that lottery or I should have heard back by now. My boss said, let’s wait. I waited.

In August, I was like, ok so here are my options:

  1. I leave Media Cause next month, or
  2. I work remotely from Europe.

My boss joked about marrying a colleague. Then he agreed to let me try working remotely.

Final month in the States: packing up my life

A few days later, I got sick from mono and was useless for 3 weeks.

My grandpa died. I did not fly back for the funeral because

  • I was 1 week in the mono-madness (which was the stage where I had massive headaches and was in bed all day and even the 15 min. walk to the doctor had me crying from exhaustion) so I was physically unable to;
  • I had exactly one month to get my shit together to move out;
  • My visa expired in one month so I was scared that if I left now, they wouldn’t let me come back to move my shit out.

And then in September, I said goodbye to my friends and my colleagues and I moved back to Europe.

Figuring out how to be a digital nomad

I temporarily moved back in with my parents. My childhood bedroom full of boxes from when I was living and studying in Tilburg. (They’re still there).

I thought about moving to Berlin and some of my friends there hooked me up with a room for 3 weeks in October, which became my first digital nomad trip.

I tried to figure out:

  • How to get paid – legally – as an independent contractor in the Netherlands while working for only one company in the US
  • What my accommodation budget would be
  • How to decide where to go, where to live
  • Where to work from productively
  • How to find wifi anywhere
  • How to find a quiet place to have meetings between 6-9pm where I was allowed to talk
  • How to fit my life into a carryon and a regular backpack

And, for the longest time, I forgot one crucial thing: how to meet new people when you’re only there for a month and working at weird hours. But these are stories for future posts.

What to expect moving forward

This is the raw truth of how I became a digital nomad. I am not here to tell you how to live your life nor am I here to tell you how to become a digital nomad. I want to prove there is “more than one way that leads to Rome”. That if life throws you roadblocks, there are solutions you might not have thought of before. (I thought I would have to leave Media Cause if I didn’t get my visa, and I found a way to stay). And that you don’t have to follow the same path as everyone else (really, what even is “normal” anymore?).

I am also here to show people some reality. We all know real life is more complex than our Instagram. It is about time we have some real talk about real life. If you’re into that I hope you stick around, and I hope you’ll share some of YOUR reality too.

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