Today, I am writing our fourth trailblazer feature. In Muscat, Noortje got inspired by a peer support network, and started her own – or actually two – now she lives in Brunei.

Noortje’s daily surroundings look much different from the empty planes and bare mountains of the Omani landscape she left almost 2 years ago. She now cycles her children to school through the jungle of Brunei, with the sounds of macaques, hornbills (typical birds of that area) and frogs. One thing has not changed: she spends many hours studying, and prefers to do that surrounded by peers.

In 2009, Noortje and her husband moved to Cameroon, where he got a job in the oil industry. They were looking for adventure, away from their home coutry the Netherlands. She put her expertise in health education and promotion to practice as a volunteer for an organisation aiming at the prevention of HIV/AIDS and supporting patients. By the time they were about to leave, Noortje had started some online courses and was planning to do a full masters program in Management Sciences.

The family moved to Muscat, Oman soon after their first baby was born in 2011. Again, Noortje’s husband had a job, and she continued studying. She had started a program that would give her admission to the Masters in Management Sciences at Open University in the Netherlands? Oftentimes, Noortje would find a place outside of her home, such as a coffee shop, library or shared office to study and not be distracted by small children and household tasks. She also found support in studying together with others, including myself, one of our other trailblazers Tina and other members of our Personal Development Network. Ever since I met Noortje more than 3 years ago, she tries to structurally spend 5 mornings per week studying – except for during ‘maternity leaves’. She has realised that she was not born to be a full-time mum. ‘Studying keeps me up, next to the care for our children.’ However, she has also released a bit of the pressure she has been putting on herself: ‘I still want to finish the study and I’m continuously actively working on that, but I don’t push myself to make all deadlines. Initially, I had the idea: people are doing this study next to their job and family, then I can do it with only my family – including all help. I have let go of this idea.

Noortje finished the admission program and started the actual masters program shortly after their move to Brunei and currently, she is getting ready for her thesis project. The idea of studying with peers, as Noortje did in Oman, is something she took with her to Brunei. Noortje loves to read, think, analyse and write for hours. But she misses the team work. To compensate for this,  one of the first things she did in her new hometown, was setting up a similar network as the Personal Development Network she joined in Muscat. ‘Focus aims at providing people who study or work from home a means to work together. To motivate and inspire each other, and to take a break together.’

Then there was an other issue that popped up: Noortje was wondering how she would explain the ‘gap’ on her CV to potential employers. She is convinced that her experiences in Cameroon, Oman and Brunei, including the transitions, are very valuable for an employer. However, she also realises that she is not a ‘standard’ employee and ‘how to convince an employer to choose me, instead of a younger candidate with more work experience?’ After a while, Noortje thought she could not be the only one with this question and decided to explore the option of starting a Lean In Circle around the theme ‘back to work’. (Apparently, a few years back, I had told her about these small groups of women who meet and grow together, inspired by the book ‘Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead‘ by Sheryl Sandberg. During our skype conversation, Noortje enthusiastically shares her experiences and tips on started such a circle. So much so, that I am inspired to look into it again – more on that in a later post.)

Noortje started by forming a group of likeminded souls. She focused on the Dutch expat community because she felt they would understand best what it would be like to return to the Dutch work force again. Most reactions were very positive and soon a group of 8 was meeting once per month, and they have continued doing so for more than a year now. (Their last meeting was this morning and included taking the group picture featured above.) The group is diverse and each of them is able to support the others in different ways. For example, one participant is career coach – her input in the form of games and tests is valuable in addition to the materials available from the Lean In website. The list of achievements of the Lean In Circle is impressive. All participants have formulated a clear goal, usually about finding out ‘what do I want’, for one participant the Lean In Circle provided the extra push to get started with volunteer work that would give her the experience she expects to need when applying for a paid job later, an other participant decided that she would not do the course she intended, but instead focus on other activities. Furthermore, they now all have an up to date CV and a LinkedIn profile (with professional portrait taken by one of the circle members who also is a photographer) and they have all practiced a job interview, in addition to games and exercises around values and what they find important in their private and work lives.

Noortje and her family are planning to return to the Netherlands in a few years. When asked to reflect on her development, Noortje does not regret her expat life in Cameroon, Oman and Brunei at all. To Noortje, identity used to be strongly connected to work and independence and her experiences challenged her to change this view. She emphasises that she has had so many experiences during the ten years abroad, ‘work can not compete with that. Moreover’, Noortje continues, ‘I still have plenty of time to work. To start a career when I am forty. That does not sound impossible, does it? And then I have ten years of adventure, variety and time with my children in the pocket. No one is going to take that from me!’