Globetrotter, animal lover alumnus campaigns for ‘Best Job in the World’

Sammy Caiola, Reporter

In 2007, five years after graduating Northwestern with a degree in economics and communication, Nick Tilley quit his job as sales manager at a surgical firm and bought a one-way ticket to Oceania. After six years of travel and one well-received YouTube video, he may be on his way back Down Under.

Tilley, a resident of St. Louis, is one of 25 finalists vying for the position of Wildlife Caretaker in Tourism Australia’s annual Best Jobs in the World competition. If selected, he will spend the next year in South Australia caring for koalas, kangaroos, seals and sea lions while reacquainting himself with the land he calls “a home away from home” (Tilley studied abroad in Sydney as an undergraduate). All he has to do is prove to the nation’s largest tourism outlet that he’s the man for the job.

To get his name on the board, Tilley created an entry video about his experience with wildlife around the world. His video, and 149 others, were selected out of 600,000 entries. During his months backpacking and doing field work in New Zealand, Nepal, China, Southeast Asia and Africa, Tilley spent time with a wide spectrum of animals, including wombats, llamas, sea lions and sharks.

“I always seek out opportunities that let me interact with the wildlife because that’s what makes a place unique,” said Tilley, who owns no pets of his own but has developed a close bond with his neighbor’s African tortoise, Yoda. “I did a good job of highlighting my passion for wildlife as well as the international aspect of it.”

To draw more attention to his campaign and to help some wildlife in the process, Tilley has partnered with the Australian Koala Foundation, a nonprofit that works to preserve the koala’s natural habitat on the east coast. Through social media promotion and a large St. Louis fundraising event last week, Tilley has garnered more than $2,000 for the cause.

Lorraine O’Keefe of the AKF’s financial department said many people contact the organization about partnering but never actually raise any money. Tilley, on the other hand, has been AKF’s biggest individual fundraiser to date.

“I rang him, and his enthusiasm came across,” O’Keefe said. “He sounded as if he had it all under control. He understands Australia because he’s been here. His money will be put towards our work, which also includes planting trees. But mainly to continue on with the National Koala Act. That’s our long-term goal.”

Nick’s older sister, Ryanne Tilley, works as a financial adviser in St. Louis and has been helping Nick with the business and public relations side of his campaign. She said the whole family is extremely proud and supportive and cannot wait to hear if he made the final three. That announcement will be made May 18, and the caretaker position will be awarded May 24.

Since Nick was a child, he always loved animals. Despite the fact that he is allergic to dogs and couldn’t have one, she said, he always played with every dog he saw and just took his inhaler. In Australia, he was the first to jump into the shark tank, despite a lifelong fear of sharks.

“He really can show throughout all of his travels how involved he gets with the wildlife,” she said. “He makes a point of doing that. Everything in life is exciting to him. He makes the most of every minute. He has this background that makes him a great candidate.”

Though the “Best Jobs in the World” campaign might seem like a marketing ploy, Nick Tilley hails Tourism Australia as a great resource for those visiting Australia for the first time.

“They do a tremendous job of trying to approach and appeal to anyone and everyone,” Tilley said. “They do a really good job of promoting eco-friendly tourism. Take only photos, leave only footprints.”

And Tilley certainly has left footprints — not just in Australia but all over the world. When not on the trail, he runs his website, BackPackU, which offers trail maps and tips to those who want to travel off the beaten path. He’s done day trips on volcanoes and 17-day hikes through the Himalayans and is always learning from strangers along the way.

If he doesn’t get the job, Tilley plans to expand his website even further and continue to encourage others to travel. He advises NU students to visit the study abroad office as soon as possible.

“Get inspired. Get encouraged,” he said. “If you can’t travel now, travel vicariously. My experience in Sydney has given direction to my life. If you don’t quit and you don’t go, you’re always going to live with that regret. You only have one life. I don’t want to lose it living in a cubicle where what I’m doing doesn’t matter.”