My friend Michelle is the very definition of #careergoals. (Ugh, did I just use a hashtag in a sentence?) Always eager to explore new places, Michelle has spent the past year working a job that pays her to live in a new city every month. As a traveling program leader, she gets to immerse herself in local cultures and plan exciting events and day trips for her fellow world travelers. If you think it sounds like the best job ever, you might be right.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, it won’t surprise you to learn that I met Michelle while working as a tour director in Alaska and the Yukon. We bonded pretty quickly, and I’m grateful that we’ve grown even closer in the years since. I love Michelle’s sense of adventure, and that she is never afraid to say “yes” to jetting off to a new destination, trying a new food, or throwing herself wholeheartedly into a new experience.
I’m so glad that Michelle agreed to let me interview her for our series of Travel Career Snapshots and hope you enjoy learning all about her fabulous international life! When you’re done, don’t forget to check out her great tips for staying healthy on the road in this post!
Hi, Michelle! Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. Let’s start by learning a little bit about who you are outside of your work.
Happy to be here! I’m originally from Spokane, WA, but I haven’t lived there since high school. I went to college at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, so big moves have been part of my life for some time now. I double-majored in hospitality management and psychology, and three days after graduating I moved to Alaska to start my first job in tourism.
I’m pretty active as well – I love outdoor activities, sports, and anything to get the adrenaline going!
You’ve traveled all over the world on a number of different kinds of trips. Where did your passion for travel come from?
Being from Washington, I went into Canada quite a bit growing up. That was my first look at international travel, though at the time you didn’t even need a passport so it was the easiest experience ever! I went to France and Germany when I was 14 and immediately fell in love with the different architecture, way of life, language – everything. I was so intrigued by how people lived around the world.
For the past year or so, you’ve had a very unique job. Can you tell me about what it is that you do?
I’ve been working as a traveling Program Leader for a company called Remote Year. I manage a community of about 40 digital nomads (people who work remotely) while we travel to a different country every month over the course of a year. I’m in charge of everyone’s experience while on this journey, so a lot of logistics, budgeting, and event management come into play.
How did you find this opportunity, and what attracted you to it?
I was previously working as a tour guide in Alaska, so I had a lot of experience with managing groups of people. While Alaska is still one of my favorite places in the world, I was looking to do more international travel. One of my colleagues told me about Remote Year and it all went from there.
I know that the idea of a “typical workday” might not exist for your role, but can you tell me a little about what your daily work schedule looks like?
I’ve never had more variation in a workweek than I do with this role! The second we arrive in a new city, preparation begins for the next stop on our itinerary. We have a co-working space in each destination for the digital nomads to do their work, and by the time I get there in the morning, I usually have several video calls lined up. Since I work both on the ground with my group and remotely with other team members in different locations around the world, video calls are key.
I set up events for the community (my group of digital nomads) throughout the month, and these can range from professional development opportunities to skill shares to a farewell event, etc. I also hold office hours, which are really important because they allow me to be accessible to the group. On the other hand, when I’m not in the co-working space, you can often find me leading the group on excursions to explore the city and surrounding area. We’ve done everything from cooking classes to rappelling down waterfalls!
What are some of the best parts of your job?
Getting the chance to live in a different country for a month at a time is amazing. It’s so much different than just passing through as a tourist. I get into a routine, find the best cafes to work from, join a gym for the month, and really feel like I’m a resident of that city. It really gives you a new perspective.
I also love being able to experience important parts of each city’s culture, like sailing in Croatia, surfing in Lisbon, Muay Thai in Thailand, and ceviche in Peru! And of course, the people I get to spend my year with are pretty incredible. Solo travel can be extremely rewarding, but being able to share once-in-a-lifetime experiences with a group of amazing humans is something I’ll never take for granted.
Are there any downsides?
Prior to this position, the longest I’d been outside of the USA in one stretch was a little over three months. This job has me away for about fourteen. As much as I love adapting to each new country and trying new cuisines, sometimes I wish I could just find a Target and buy some Cheez-Its! You start to crave some normalcy and inevitably miss out on events that are going on back home.
What has made you successful in this line of work?
I’m the middle child from a big family, which has made me extremely patient and a natural mediator. Those two qualities are absolutely necessary for this position! I also crave adventure, love to travel, and am always willing to try new things.
You have to learn to expect the unexpected. Sometimes, regardless of how much time you’ve put into planning an event, something completely out of your control can happen that totally derails your plans. You just have to take a deep breath, assess the situation, and get creative to find a solution. I’m never one to back down from a challenge 😉
What are one or two things someone should know before committing to a job that takes them away from home for long periods of time?
A quote I love comes to mind: “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” I’ve seen people leave their home country and be disappointed when a new place they’re visiting is too “foreign.” You will be pushed outside of your comfort zone. Embrace the chaos and grow from the experience.
Of the places you lived in the past year, which were your favorites and why?
Budapest, Medellín, and Mexico City were my top three. I absolutely adore Budapest, especially the buildings, history, and of course the chicken paprikash. I feel that it’s an overlooked city in Eastern Europe that everyone should visit.
Medellín is known as the “city of eternal spring” for its constant springtime temperatures. The city is full of hills that lead you to breathtaking views, and at times you feel like you’re in the middle of the jungle when you’re actually in the heart of the city. It’s rich with history and has done a complete 180 from its violent, not-so-distant past. It’s also home to some of the friendliest people in South America.
Mexico City completely surprised me. As one of the biggest cities in the world, I didn’t expect quiet neighborhoods surrounding luscious parks and jogging trails. It’s very walkable, dog-friendly, and the food is to die for.
What would you say were the biggest lessons you learned over the course of this experience?
Travel is all about the people. While solo travel is something I think everyone should do at some point in their lives, there’s something so special about having a group of forty people to share this crazy adventure with.
Also, the more effort you put into something the more you get out of it.
Is there an exciting, provocative, or funny story from your work or travels that you’d like to share?
On Remote Year we say there are three levels of fun: Level 1 is the fun you know you’re going to have, like renting a car to go rafting in Bosnia. Level 2 is the unforeseen fun, like your guide bringing a case of beer. Level 3 fun is when absolutely everything goes wrong, like the boat popping, losing a paddle, and hours of freezing, torrential downpour through the rapids… and this was all on one of my first weekends on the job! Even though we were completely miserable at the time, it has since turned into one of my favorite memories. The beauty of Level 3 fun is that it’s definitely a memorable experience that you’ll look back on and laugh about!
What is your favorite or most trusted piece of travel advice?
When you’re packing for a trip, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then pack half the clothes and double the money.
Another one I like is, “If plan ‘A’ doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters.”
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you, your work, or any of the places you’ve been?
I recently visited my 61st country! I feel so fortunate to have been able to travel as much as I have. One of the biggest items on my bucket list right now is to visit Antarctica. I can’t wait to get there someday!
Thanks so much, Michelle!
**Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. All photos were provided by Michelle.
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This Travel Career Snapshot was originally posted on July 16, 2019, and was last updated on July 16, 2020.
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