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For W&M law grads, crossing North America in a camper van opens new career vistas

  • Four people stand beside and sit in a yellow van
    A new home base:  Rebecca Eichler J.D. ’98 and Paul Carlino J.D. ’98, with their children, Maya and Jonah, pause for a photo in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where they eventually decided to settle.  Courtesy photo
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For Paul Carlino J.D. ’98 and Rebecca Eichler J.D. ’98, what started out as a dream and a poster board collage in their kitchen turned into a life-changing, cross-continent road trip from Virginia to Panama. The couple chose 2015 as the year to put their law careers on hold, rent out their house, pull their kids out of school and pack everything into a 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van to drive from their home in Alexandria, Virginia, to the very bottom of North America: Panama.

The trip originated in a conversation Eichler had with a woman she met in Ecuador in 2008, where she was volunteering with Asylum Access, providing legal aid to Colombian refugees. The woman was doing a yearlong worldwide trip with her two teenage children.

“I talked with her all afternoon, and she blew my mind,” says Eichler, who was then practicing immigration law as a partner with EichlerWright PLC, while Carlino worked in the Internal Revenue Service’s Office of Chief Counsel.

Hearing about the woman’s experience doing something Eichler had always dreamed of but never thought was possible, she felt empowered and inspired. “I came back and told Paul, ‘I want to do this.’”

As one can imagine, a yearlong trip took lots of planning — seven years of it, actually — but also a willingness to change course on the fly. Of course, there were the logistics of renting their house, taking a leave of absence from their jobs and designing a curriculum for homeschooling their two children — then ages 10 and 12 — but aside from that, it was picking a place and deciding what route to take to get there.

The couple chose the North American continent as the parameter for their trip but didn’t plan much further than that.

“We didn’t always have a plan every day,” Carlino says. “We didn’t always know where we were going to sleep that night. But it wasn’t in a stressful way, it was more fun, like let’s just figure things out on the fly.”

This kind of life isn’t for everybody, the couple explains.

“As we were about to cross the border into Mexico, we were both coming into it thinking this is the craziest, scariest, most dangerous thing we could ever do with our family,” Eichler recalls. “We had to confront that fear.”

“You have to be comfortable with not knowing, be comfortable with uncertainty,” Eichler says.

“And have a willingness to fly by the seat of your pants,” Carlino adds.

This planned uncertainty led them to some of their favorite memories of the trip — such as witnessing a mass sea turtle nesting at the Playa de Escobilla sanctuary in Mexico.

Paul Carlino and his son, Jonah, get an up-close look at sea turtles in Playa de Escobilla, Mexico. (Photo by Rebecca Eichler)“Over the course of a weekend, 250,000 sea turtles came ashore to lay their eggs,” Eichler says. “By chance, it coincided with the hatching of the previous laying. There were baby turtles coming out of the ground, mama turtles riding the waves onto the beach, laying their eggs — it was breathtaking.”

Creating a school experience in a van traveling across North America ended up being great preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were already familiar with the idea of homeschooling, and we already knew it’s OK to not go to school for a year,” Eichler points out. “You’re going to learn things no matter what.”

Besides how to navigate homeschooling, the family learned a lot over the course of their 15,000-mile trip. “You don’t have to live this check-the-box life,” Carlino says.

“There’s more than one way to do it,” Eichler adds. “You can pretty much do it however you want. There aren’t rules, there isn’t a prescribed path. We wanted to impress upon our kids that they have the opportunity to make choices in their life that shape and direct their future.”

For anyone planning to embark on a similar adventure, the couple has two pieces of advice: “Listen to the people who have done it,” Eichler says. “And be flexible. Don’t over plan it,” adds Carlino.

About 250,000 sea turtles made their way to shore to lay eggs. (Photo by Rebecca Eichler)The family enjoyed their experience in Central America so much that 18 months after they returned home to Alexandria, they moved to Mexico, permanently. “After experiencing what we did — the freedom with time and energy — the life we were trying to re-engage in just didn’t really seem to fit anymore,” Carlino explains.

“We had returned to a gilded cage,” Eichler says. “We realized that the really good life that I thought we had —  it’s still great, but once we got out of that cage and saw all the other things that it could be, it was hard to get back into that cage.”

And the transition was rather seamless. With rental of their Alexandria home as their new main source of income, Carlino and Eichler were free to pursue other endeavors.

Eichler started a company called Language Adventure Pros that provides courses for lawyers from the U.S. who want to learn the lingo related to immigration law practice in Spanish. In 2018, she spearheaded legal aid response to the Central American caravans that traveled from Honduras toward the Mexico-U.S. border. Because of that work, Eichler is a subject of the upcoming documentary film “Las Abogadas: Attorneys on the Front Lines of the Migrant Crisis” — scheduled to debut at film festivals this fall — and she served as the consulting immigration law expert for the production team.

Carlino, with a background working for the IRS, has taken up doing tax returns for the expat population in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, their new home.

“We decided that our skills are portable,” Carlino explains.

“There are multiple ways to live life,” Eichler adds. “We didn’t meet a lot of people that were on a traditional path when we were on this trip, but they were successful in what they were doing and they were happy, and we decided we wanted that, too.”

Their daughter, Maya, wrote her college essay about the trip and will be headed back to the States in the fall to study art history at Bryn Mawr College. They expect their son, Jonah, to follow in her footsteps in a few years, after which Carlino and Eichler envision another trip, the details of which are still uncertain, but that doesn’t scare them at all. In fact, it's what they’re looking forward to most.

For William & Mary students inspired by their story, the couple has a few pieces of advice:

“Travel as much as you can. It’s the best education you can get. Second to William & Mary, of course,” Eichler adds with a wink.

To hear more about their trip across North America, you can read the book Carlino wrote about their adventure: “The Year We Ruined Our Lives: A Family Road Trip Through Mexico and Central America.”