“I can’t do this. This is not sustainable. I’m sick all the time. I hardly see the kids even though they’re home 24/7. I love my students but I can’t do this anymore,” I said to my husband last year as my heart raced and I felt like falling apart. I couldn’t do it anymore: work full-time, care for my infant, homeschool my son, manage my chronic illness, even with my classed and educational privilege and my partner’s support.
My intuition was telling me it was time to leave, a familiar feeling. This is my second time leaving academia. The first time was after having my son and developing a chronic illness in grad school. I decided to leave the tenure-track job market and secured a position as an assistant director of a graduate school and research preparation program. The job was fulfilling because as a first-generation Chicana from a working-class background, I could relate to many of my students and they kept me afloat for a few years.
But things changed during the pandemic; it became clear what my values are —sustainability, work-life harmony, and impact — which no longer aligned with my circumstances. I have now left academia altogether and am self-employed.
Here are the top ten reasons I left higher ed:
1) To improve my physical and mental health by living a slower lifestyle.
2) To spend more quality time with my two children and partner.
3) To strengthen my friendships by having more time for chats and calls.
4) To take control of my finances by creating passive and remote income streams so that I
don’t have to rely on an institution to determine my income.
5) To take time off when I need it without worrying about requesting it.
6) To not be tied to one location, move abroad, and travel more.
7) To be my full unapologetic self and not censor my voice for fear of institutional retaliation.
8) To become a student again. I’m taking Portuguese lessons and learning about entrepreneurship, coaching, freelancing, and ed tech to enhance my skill set.
9) To take on projects that align with my values rather than those that are delegated by an employer.
10) To use my knowledge to serve more people and make a bigger impact rather than serving the few who get admitted into competitive grad prep programs.
As I prepared to leave higher ed, I also decided to relocate our family abroad. When I said “This is not sustainable” to my husband, I was not only critiquing the culture of overwork and exploitation of academia. Rather, I was also critiquing the ways that this country prioritizes profits over people leaving so many of us in precarious positions where we can no longer afford to keep living where we were raised. I could no longer afford to stay in California.
While we were initially interested in Portugal because of the lower cost of living, we were pleasantly surprised to learn about its safety, affordable healthcare, family-friendly and slower-paced culture, and the fact that our children would learn Portuguese. Their visa application was also relatively straightforward, making this dream a possibility.
Here is how we made our international move in six months:
Step 1: We took a look at our finances
Since I knew I would be leaving my job, we needed to know if we could live somewhere on half of the income we made in California. We also needed to determine if we had enough savings to afford a move. With the savings we had and what we made from selling our home, that gave us more than enough of a safety net to prepare for moving abroad.
Step 2: We chose a place to relocate to
Initially, all we knew was that we couldn’t afford to stay in California. We created a list of places to relocate to and narrowed down our options to a few states and a few countries outside of the US. After creating a checklist of things we prioritized (e.g. safety, cost of living, healthcare, weather), we found that Portugal met all our needs.
Step 3: We made a timeline
We then wondered how long it would take to pull this off. For us, it took six months to prepare for the move to Portugal. This included time to give my job a three month’s notice and slowly transition out. It also involved selling our home, securing a Portuguese bank account, getting our Portuguese fiscal numbers (their version of a social security number), virtually securing an apartment, and flying to San Francisco to apply for our visa. Then we had to wait six weeks — it can take up to twelve weeks— to get our visas in the mail.
Step 4: I turned my side hustle into my main job
I’ve been editing and coaching students since I finished my PhD program in 2016. I’ve always enjoyed assisting students with applying to grad school and completing their dissertations. I used what I knew to create a business plan, set up my LLC, update my website, and start marketing myself to secure more clients. I provided invoices and my LLC paperwork in my visa application, which helped to prove that I have remote income to support myself.
Step 5: I kept learning and asked for help
In between academic work and caregiving, I dedicated any free time to learning about moving abroad. From reviewing official websites, browsing social media groups, listening to podcasts, and watching videos, I consumed as much information as possible. We also hired a consultant to help us with our visa application and with their support, we hope to establish our residency here.
Now that we’ve made the move, we can’t imagine going back to our former lifestyle. When I think of the quality of life we have now, I’m reminded of my parents and ancestors who also left their home countries in search of better opportunities; their resilience sustains me along the way.
If you too dream of moving abroad but it seems unattainable, consider reframing your thoughts by asking yourself, “How can I make this a possibility?” Then take one small step in that direction and watch your life completely change.