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Nadia Mitchem in Budapest

‘Accidental nomad’ responds to whisper and whim

She was a high-powered executive, having built national volunteer-management infrastructures for leading charitable organizations.

But there was that whisper.

“I always knew that there was more, and something just kept pulling at me about the idea of taking a leap and doing something bold and different,” said Nadia Mitchem ’98.

She lept into a “slomad” lifestyle – a slow-moving, nomadic existence that has taken her on nine solo U.S. road trips covering 5,000 miles and, so far, on long visits to 12 countries in Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. She is careful to say she is not on vacation, packing in every conceivable experience; she is living a lifestyle with the attitude that she will return to each destination someday.

“The world has been opened up in some of the most enchanting ways,” she said. She spent an afternoon with a master violin maker, who demonstrated how he coaxed melodies from a block of wood. She departed with a sore back and reddened fingers – but also an appreciation for women’s contributions and “the painstaking labor that is put into the artistry” – after learning to weave a rug from a woman in mountainous Turkey.

Mitchem at the Charles Bridge in Prague
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Charles Bridge in Prague

Qasar Al Wantan Palace in Abu Dhabi  Devin Kessler
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Qasar Al Wantan Palace in Abu Dhabi 

Popic Winery in Lumbarda, Croatia Sandy Berman
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Popic Winery in Lumbarda, Croatia

She was struck by the dignity Rembrandt depicted in “Two African Men,” a 1661 painting, and the irony that it hangs in The Mauritshuis, a museum that used to be the living quarters of a Dutch sugar farmer who enslaved people.

She marveled at her freedom while traveling the Harriet Tubman Byway in Maryland, and contemplated how women in the past, especially Black women, “did not have the agency to decide when and where and for how long” they could move. She toured Southern plantation homes to “claim my place in American history.”

Mitchem said she is “an accidental nomad in the sense that this wasn’t my intent. Initially, I thought I’d travel and then return and go back into a traditional environment.” Instead, “I had to give myself permission to color outside the lines because this was a bit unconventional.”

That took time. It was 2014 when the whisper was “loudest in my ear, but I didn’t take any concrete steps.” She was working for the American Red Cross, where she created the infrastructure to support 272,000 volunteers across more than 100 local chapters. She was deployed for six months to advise the international affiliate in Geneva, Switzerland, where “the pace was so palpably different” from the hectic American workplace and “the wheels started turning.”

She had just determined that she should find something new when St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, recruited her to create its volunteer infrastructure. “That job was fine, but I still didn’t quell that whisper,” she said. “In fact, it probably got louder.”

That, and “the universe was just conspiring in my favor,” positioning ideas and people in front of her and inspiring her to set March 29, 2020, as the date she would resign. Then COVID happened. She postponed but didn’t cancel her plans and in August 2020 she stored her belongings, identified her hometown of St. Louis as a base and headed out across the U.S. for six months.

“It probably took me three months to unwind from that sense of ‘do, do, do’ and to recognize that I had complete control over my day,” Mitchem said. “I was really exploring. I was really able to subject myself to whim and give in to whim. And that was amazing and refreshing and delightful and delicious.”

The whisper, though, still nagged. “I realized the power in asking myself ‘Why not?’” she said. “I couldn’t come up with any good reason.” And so, in June 2021, she lept still farther, this time to a month-long program in Croatia curated for professionals who need a timeout. Though she was a veteran international traveler before this experience, “I wanted a degree of structure because of the uncertainty in the world at the time.” After that, “I’ve been solo and nomadic all around the world.”

Mitchem heeds U.S. State Department travel warnings and listens to other travelers – especially Black women also traveling alone – as she chooses each destination. Sometimes she merely mulls a map. When she spoke with DePauw Magazine, she was newly arrived in Marrakech, Morocco, where she planned to stay five weeks, then head to Milan, Italy. “I don’t know what I’m doing after that,” she said.

She has formed many friendships, often with other solo travelers whom she seeks out on Facebook and Meetup as she moves from place to place, and thus she never feels lonely. “I enjoy my own company, and I seek community when I feel like I want community,” she said.

She is recording her experiences – and encouragement to would-be solo nomads, especially Gen Xers (born 1965-80) and Xennials (a microgeneration born in the late 1970s and early 1980s) – on a website, globalchroniclesofnadia.com, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

She has no plans to end her travels. “I don’t know that I will go back to a desk because I’ve realized you don’t have to,” she said. She has done some consulting but “90% of my time is still mine” and “I would engage only in things that bring me joy. I protect my peace in ways that I had never considered protecting my peace before. I embrace the fact that ‘no’ is a complete sentence.

“I want to be able to dream.”

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