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I studied abroad three times in college. London twice. Paris once. It was – by far – the best decision I made at university and my #1 recommendation to students. Alexis Grant has also been bitten by the travel bug. Recently, she left her job as the careers editor for US News and World Report to launch her own social media business, giving her the freedom to work from “Bangkok to Montauk” if she wants. Alexis has made a career helping others do what she does best, i.e. take leaps and follow dreams, and today – on the release of her new ebook How to Take a Career Break to Travel: A Step-by-Step Guide to Making Your Dream Trip Happen – Alexis shares her wisdom on how travel can help your career and why “studying abroad” is actually a lifetime pursuit.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
When I left my job to travel in Africa, friends and colleagues often told me they wished they could take a big trip, too. But they said it like it was impossible! Like they could never do it. I wrote this guide to help people who’ve dreamed about traveling realize they can make it happen if they really want it. That obstacles like not having enough money or worrying about your career shouldn’t be enough to keep you from seeing the world. I also wanted to share some of the expertise I gained from preparing for and embarking on a long-haul trip. I learned a lot of tricks – like which immunizations are really necessary and how to deter curious luggage handlers – and I figured they’d do more good if I made them available to soon-to-be-travelers, rather than keeping them all in my already-full head. This guide is also a natural complement to my travel memoir, which is going through the traditional publishing pipeline now. My memoir is about what it was like to backpack solo through Africa and how I grew along the way, and this guide is a practical, self-help version addition to that.
2. What was the MOST extraordinary thing that happened to you in Africa?
Probably the most extraordinary thing was how I grew as a person, how I realized that I didn’t have to do everything myself — both in travel and in life — and that leaning on others is OK once in a while. But I think you’re fishing for an experience. For that I’d say returning to the village in Cameroon where I’d lived during my college semester abroad. My host family — a polygamous family with four wives and two dozen kids — didn’t know I was coming, because I had trouble getting hold of them; snail-mail is notoriously unreliable in parts of Africa, and the family didn’t have email or phones – or electricity or running water, for that matter. So I showed up, unannounced, six years after living with this family. It was a bittersweet reunion because one of the family members had recently died, but what an awesome experience. I’ll never forget the shock on the wives’ faces when they first saw me.
3. What advice would you give someone who wants to take time off work to go abroad?
Make it happen! Years ago, workers were expected to stay with the same company for their entire career, and taking a year away from the mainstream workforce to travel was unheard of. Now, you can leave a job to travel without botching your resume. In fact, one of my biggest points in How to Take a Career Break to Travel is that traveling can actually help your career. If you approach your break strategically, you can gain skills while abroad that will make you a more marketable employee upon your return. Here’s a crucial tip: Don’t leave your travel year as a gap on your resume. If you go into your trip with a plan, you’ll have valuable skills to add to your resume instead. You’ll be able to tell hiring managers you were “volunteering with an education non profit group in Peru” or “learning French in Mali” or “gaining experience as a freelance writer,” instead of “just traveling.” Rather than falling behind your job-seeking competitors during your time away, you’ll gain experience and skills that will put you ahead of the pack.
4. For a new grad who didn’t have the opportunity to study in college, what’s the best way to work travel into a career?
You’ve got two options: Choose a career that includes travel or figure out how to fit travel into a career that’s not travel-related. Part of the reason I chose journalism for my career was because I thought it would allow me to travel. But the industry is changing, and that’s no longer the norm. Now that I’m running my own social media business, I can work remotely, so I’m hoping to take my laptop with me to places I’ve long wanted to visit, like Tasmania and Thailand and South Korea. But if you don’t have that kind of flexibility over where and when you work, your day job probably only gives you two, maybe three weeks of vacation each year, right? That’s why I think career breaks are so important, because they allow you to travel for longer periods of time, to really get to know the countries you visit and lose yourself in the nomadic lifestyle. The catch is that it takes some time to plan for a long-haul trip and to save enough money to do it. But as I explain in my guide, this is totally doable! Here’s how I did it: I worked for three years as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, saving money all the while. I knew I wanted to go backpacking at some point, but I also knew I wanted to get some solid experience on my resume and money in the bank before taking my Big Trip. That’s why I waited until the three-year mark. But the mark is different for each of us. If traveling is really a priority for you, consider your goals and obstacles and finances, and figure out a plan to take a career break in the near future. While everyone else is sitting behind a desk, you’ll be exploring new countries, meeting new people and learning about new countries.
5. Are you planning another trip yourself? What’s next?
My goal now is to work shorter trips into my life so I don’t feel like I have to take off for six months at a time. Several months ago I bought a plane ticket to Nicaragua, but the day before my departure, I realized my passport was about to expire — yack! So I canceled that trip temporarily. I’ve sent my passport away for renewal, and as soon as I get it back, I hope to be on my way to Nicaragua. Of course, that means getting my business in tip-top shape so I can either forget about it for a few days or easily stay on top of client work from another country. I’m still figuring out how to play this remote-work game, but I’m psyched about the potential.