Should becoming a nomadic digital student be a thing? With the advent of online degrees gaining prominence across the world, and the freelancing industry emphasizing the need for portfolios rather than actual degrees, it seems like there is a world where students might actually consider living the digital nomad life. Likewise, a pretty good case could be made in favor of digital nomads looking to pursue a university degree in order to further their career or qualify for a freelance work visa.
Well, last last year, I decided to put that theory to the test and embark on a nomadic digital student (NDS) adventure so you don’t have to!
The pursuit of Education
In the freelance world, university education is often said to be overrated and not worth it. While it is indeed possible to find freelance work with the sole merit of one’s portfolio, doing so with a degree under one’s belt will often open more doors. A degree is an opportunity to improve and challenge ourselves, create potential professional connections, and qualify to work overseas legally. And that last benefit is probably going to be the strongest argument in favor of getting an education for a lot of DN freelancers out there.
In my case, going back to school was not a decision I’d made on a dime but rather something I’d always wanted and continuously planned for. So, after years of half measure and failures, I felt like the time had come to meet my destiny. I really needed the degree to help me move up the career ladder and ready or not, I was going to attain my goal or die trying!
A decade of expat sedentariness
Leading up to my decision, I had been living as an expat for nearly a decade after leaving behind an online teaching gig in a world before digital nomadism was even a thing. That early stint of online work had helped me support myself while living across the world and enabled me to enter what would become my new sedentary career as an ESL teacher. As fate had it, it would be exactly ten years before I would return to embrace the life of a digital nomad once more, this time as a full time nomadic digital student.
Starting the adventure
In fall 2017, I requested to reduce my class load in exchange for a pay cut so that I could concentrate on my plan. I stopped focusing on side-projects and started researching how to reach my career goals and transition from Teaching to Training Management and Development. I found that studying Business Administration and Instructional Design would get me exactly where I wanted. So I looked for a degree plan that could suit my career goals and considered several programs and universities that would accommodate my shoestring budget.
The world is not enough
Finally, it was time to figure out where I would legally stay as a student. The easiest choice would have been to go back “home” and study online or live as an exchange student. For some time, I briefly considered going back to my home country, but after spending so many years away, I felt like I had drifted too far apart from my old life to return. I felt a lot of anxiety, like a bad case of reverse homesickness where a foreign country felt more like home than my actual home country.
Choice or necessity
Most people are typically presented with a number of choices in life: Working in an office or becoming a remote worker. Keeping savings or investing them in the stock market. Living in the city or living in the suburbs.
Increasingly I felt like being a digital nomad was going to be less of a choice and more of a necessity. Early on, one problem with my plan was the fact that I had very limited savings and would not be able to take out a loan to pay for it. I thus had to find ways to save every last penny to keep my final goal realistic and achievable, and I quickly realized that returning to live in my home country would easily become my most expensive option.
In fact, after accounting for the cost of tuition, living costs were the second highest expense, and it was clear that this cost would play a huge part in deciding where to study.
The DN Haven
In search of a new affordable destination, I started looking at places on nomadlist and considered a few cities until setting my gaze upon Chiang Mai, a quiet city in Northern Thailand. In a nutshell, Chiang Mai was the de-facto Mecca of Digital Nomads having gradually become the destination of choice for those looking to live in South East Asia. And indeed Chiang Mai offered pretty much everything I could possibly want: Low living costs, fast, cheap, reliable, and uncensored internet, and an abundance of universities and co-working spaces (or co-study spaces as I like to call them).
To top it all off, Thailand, as a tourist destination had a pretty straightforward visa process allowing me to apply for a student visa by simply enrolling into a language or cultural course, thereby granting me extensions for the duration of the said course. Since I also needed to prepare for a language exam, I was very pleased with the arrangement.
Chiang Mai also proved to live up to its reputation as an affordable destination. For the equivalent of a month’s rent in a small cramped dorm room or studio apartment in a US city (around $1.2k/month in 2017, source: https://lendedu.com/blog/what-is-the-average-dorm-cost/), I was able to not only afford a small condo in a gated community equipped with all the necessary amenities, facilities (Gym and pool), and 24-hour security, but also pay for groceries, university tuition and language classes and still have some leftover to pay for extras such as (discounted) software subscriptions and travel insurance. My total yearly spending wouldn’t exceed $15,000 for a total cost of $30,000 for the whole degree if I could complete it within 2 years (granted that’s a big if).
The freelance route
For those without enough savings or access to student loans, there is always the option of going full DN and get an online part time job while studying.
One issue with going this route, is its legally questionable nature. Few countries have visas that specifically cover freelance or remote work. In many cases, countries that do may require candidates to have a university degree to qualify for such visas. That said, the likelihood of getting caught working as a remote worker is usually negligible as long as you take necessary precautions.
Secondly, difficulty to break into the freelance industry may make this option more risky than it’s worth for those without prior experience in the freelance industry. The best way to go about this is to keep your sedentary life for a little longer while building a reliable income stream that you can live and study off in your destination of choice.
Not for everyone
When considering how ubiquitous the internet has become, studying online while traveling the world is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Sure, most nomadic digital students likely won’t have the time or income to enjoy the benefits of living the life of a DN, but for those who come from a country where the cost of education and living is outright unaffordable without taking out a monstrous loan, then opting to study for an affordable online degree while saving on campus living costs might be something to consider. In the end, it may well allow you to even forego borrowing money altogether while living out the Digital Nomad dream halfway across the world!