Accidentally becoming a nomad-student

Avila Beach, California Central Coast

no·mad /ˈnōˌmad/ – a person who does not stay long in the same place, a wanderer

(Please pardon the cringe-worthy title)

As I traveled home to Wisconsin from California for Thanksgiving last November, it hit me that I would be home for the first time in over 9 months.

Then I thought a bit more about where life has taken me over the last two years since Spring of my sophomore year at the University of Alabama.

My Last Two Years:

The timeline goes something like this:

  • Spring 2015: Sophomore year at University of Alabama. [Tuscaloosa, AL]
  • Summer 2015:  Internship at Fetch Robotics.  [San Jose, CA]
  • Fall 2015: Internship at Trek Bikes [Waterloo, WI]
  • Spring 2016: Back at UA for junior classes [Tuscaloosa, AL]
  • Summer 2016: Second summer internship at Fetch Robotics. [San Jose, CA]
  • Fall 2016: National Student Exchange program at Cal Poly. [San Luis Obispo, CA]
  • Spring 2017: Back at UA for senior coursework. [Tuscaloosa, AL]
  • Summer 2017: Start working full time at Fetch Robotics [San Jose, CA] 

The map below shows the places I lived (blue markers) and places I visited (orange markers) over this time period.

Examining my timeline, I never stayed for more than four months at a time in any one place over the last two years. The funny thing is that I didn’t even notice this nomadic pattern until I had been doing it for two years and started picking up on the so-called digital nomad “movement,” which has really taken on a cliche of its own.

Hmm, I thought to myself, I seem to be slow traveling across the country while getting my degree. Sort of like being a digital nomad, but instead of focusing on location-independent income, I was mixing learning with paid internships. 

And while road-tripping across the United States would seem to be a bit of a soft nomad experience compared to say, traveling across Europe, the distance from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to the Bay Area, California is roughly the same as going from Madrid to Kiev, and the cultures are similarly different*.


Prefumo Canyon Rd. – a typical central coast bike ride.

So Why Does This Matter?

Looking back to two years ago, I could have stayed put in Tuscaloosa like most of my peers and pursued an internship close to school or home, while maybe getting away for a few weeks to road-trip and travel. Instead, I began something of a domino effect by getting out of my comfort zone when I moved out to California (for the first time) in summer 2015. Then I came back to the west coast in 2016, and will be back again full-time in summer of 2017.

There is something very powerful in the momentum that one builds as they get out of their comfort zone that seeps into other parts of your life. You start to question old ways of doing things and realize that change is really not so scary as society would make you think. I traveled more over the last year than the previous 20 years of my life, and now the thought of picking up everything and moving to a new city or country is quite exciting.

Reflecting, I believe that taking this road less traveled has been transformative for my personal development compared to staying one place. Mark Twain’s “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education” really hits home for me. After more than a year of working as an intern at everywhere from a toilet paper machine company to a robotics startup, I realized that most everything I needed to do my job I learned outside of class, either through extracurriculars or personal projects and self-teaching.

As the conventional brick and mortar, 4-years-of-lectures-regurgitation-and-forgetting educational path becomes less and less relevant, I think the nomad student approach offers an intriguing alternative. What seems like a better use of $50,000 – sitting in a lecture hall being taught by an individual who has limited real world experience for four years in order to get a piece of paper or traveling the country/world while consuming books, writing blogs, building websites, taking in new perspectives, pushing the limits of your physical performance and learning how to actually live?

I think its interesting to consider the different trajectories that simple decisions to get out of your comfort zone can produce, and to carefully examine the biases that stand between you and your leap.


Well, I ended up rambling longer than I anticipated. If you made it this far, here are a few takeaways to summarize:

  • Go – you can always come back.
  • Wherever you go, there you are (this one is just fun to think about).
  • The only thing that changes is you.
  • I learned more during these travels than I could ever learn in class – mainly due to experience and perspective.
  • Travel tends to force minimalism, which is an all-around benefit to improving your long-term happiness.

How did I manage to do this while supporting myself on my own in the midst of the second half of my mechanical engineering degree? That will be the topic of a future article.




*This is merely speculation as I have not (yet) been to either Spain nor the Ukraine.