It’s not every day one can complete graduate school while traveling around the world on a 235-foot yacht. But that’s exactly what Kristy Lee Bilger, MEd '23,
will have accomplished when she receives her diploma at Salus University’s 126th commencement ceremony May 25 at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.
How is that possible, you say? It was unique and interesting but it wasn’t as easy and luxurious as it sounds.
Bilger was accepted into the University’s Blindness and Low Vision Studies (BLVS)
program in the fall of 2021 to become a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI). Around the same time, a friend of hers who was a nanny said the family she worked for needed additional help since they were taking a world tour and asked if Bilger was interested and willing to travel along.
“I was like, that sounds fun. I told my friend I’ll go meet the family but the only thing is, I am in a master’s program and there are some dates that I need to come home for schooling,” said Bilger. “When I met with the family and explained that, it was totally fine with them.”
So in January 2022, Bilger flew to Honduras to begin her adventure. When she started, the kids in her charge were five, 18 months and four months old. From Honduras the family traveled through the Panama Canal to Panama, then on to Costa Rica. Over the next 18 months, the journey would take Bilger to places like French Polynesia (including the islands of Bora Bora and Tahiti), Hawaii, Fiji, Australia and Indonesia. A break in the travel schedule even allowed a return to the United States for a ski trip in Colorado. Bilger would leave the family in Indonesia to come back to the U.S. for her internship and graduation.
How did she do all that travel, watch the kids and manage to keep up with her studies? Bilger said, “by pulling out my hair.”
“I’m driven. This is something I’m really passionate about. I really want to make an impact and help the blind and low vision profession,” she said.
Her days were long. Up around 6:30 a.m., with the three kids, she was running around doing something most of the day and evening. Any hour that the children were napping or with the other nanny, Bilger used the time to study. One of the biggest challenges was navigating the different time zones in which she was traveling to accommodate the online lessons she was required to do in Salus’ Eastern time zone location.
“I would plan out my week on my planner, then I’d have to do the calculations to see what time it was Eastern time compared to what time it was where I was in the world. That was really hard. There were times I was up at 3 a.m. when it was 7 p.m. Eastern time,” said Bilger. “That actually kind of benefitted me, though. I was a day ahead, so I kind of had an extra day to do assignments. It was already tomorrow where I was.”
Communication with her instructors was also key. There were times when she was in an area of the world and didn’t have access to Wi-Fi so she would make sure her professors had a heads up on those occasions.
“The teachers were awesome and worked with me. I don’t think I turned in any assignments late. I got them in on time or communicated with my professors that I would send my assignment when I got to an area with Wi-Fi,” said Bilger. “I thank them for going through the entire journey with me.”
Of course, when the times matched up, her instructors and classmates were interested during online lessons in seeing where she was in the world at the time. “During some midday Zoom meetings. I would be inside the boat and I would get asked, ‘Can you go outside and show us where you are?’” she said.
Bilger actually officially completed her studies in December 2022, but she is walking for commencement in May 2023. She is currently substitute teaching at St. Lucy School for Children with Visual Impairments in northeast Philadelphia, where she also completed her internship. She hopes to secure a job in a school district for the start of the fall 2023 semester.
“I’m still in touch with the family. They might call me and ask me to come back out for a couple months. Their world tour will be ending in September 2023,” said Bilger, who is the first in her family to attend college and earn a master’s degree. “I was very proud of myself. I was getting paid to travel around the world watching three kids while getting my master’s - that’s crazy. I keep saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe I just did that.’”