Experiences Abroad
Estimated reading time:
3 mins

How Exchange Changed The Way I See The World (And Myself)

I’ve always been one of those annoying overachieving kids who need to be good at everything. In high school, I was always involved in various committees organising events and activities, and part of sports teams, singing ensembles and artsy projects. 

Me as the annoying kid, probably

But leaving that safety net of being busy and surrounded by friends was pretty daunting. I didn't know what I wanted to do at uni, let alone beyond it. I chose a Business degree because it seemed practical. The world revolves around money right? 

But inside, me having no idea about what direction I wanted to take just built my secret fear: that I had hit my peak in high school, and nothing I was ever going to do now would ever top that. 

So before long, I started thinking that there wasn’t actually that many choices ahead of me – that my life would look something like:

  1. University for four years
  2. Internships spread throughout somewhere in the middle
  3. Leave uni with a secure Grad Job
  4. Work in some soulless corporate job and climb the ladder for 40 years
  5. Retire
  6. Die

A (little) melodramatic, but that’s how things worked in my mind back then..

At least that’s the only way I thought my life would pan out until a massive chain of coincidences happened and I signed up for a volunteering project abroad with AIESEC. It seemed like a good idea - something to break the cycle. It'd be new and different and it sounded like I could do something meaningful while challenging myself along the way.

Flash forward a few months later, when it finally sunk in that:

  • I was travelling to a country I had never been to
  • It was a place where I didn't speak the language
  • It was the first time abroad without any friends or family
  • It was going to be six weeks long
  • What if I hated it!???!?
  • What if I made no friends?!?
  • What if people hated me!?

The only thing is, I realised this while I was already sandwiched between two strangers on a plane already en route to Sri Lanka.

My face in that moment

But to be honest, everything worked out fine.

Two AIESECers picked me up at Colombo Airport with a big sign welcoming me to their country. I met a team of 40 other volunteers from over 10 different countries (some of them I hadn’t even heard of before!) and we formed groups to train high school and university students on communication skills.

Some of my new friends! Hamed (Bahrain), Me (Australia), Christian (Denmark), Marina (Brazil), Lukasz (Poland), Kamila (Kazakhstan), Mahmood (Bahrain), Cecilia (Brazil), Fabio (China)

It was incredible seeing how these shy students raised in a rote-learning-based education system eventually came out of their shells. We made them laugh, persuaded them to participate in our team building activities and encouraged them to step out of their comfort zones.

A personal highlight for me was watching a shy girl named Renusha stand up proudly to say she’s determined to show the world that while Sri Lanka may be a developing country, their people are just as talented and capable as anyone else in the world.

Without the familiarity and comfort of home, I was able to break away from any expectations other people had of me – including my own. I had the freedom to become whoever I wanted to be and explore things I normally wouldn’t have, even if it was as simple as building my tolerance for spicy food, or going on yolo travelling adventures with my new friends on the weekend.


As I was climbing the 5300 steps of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) in the darkness so we could watch the sunrise over the mountain, I saw people of all ages taking the same journey as me. Grandma-aged ladies slowly but surely making their way down the mountain. Children shorter than my waist dragging their feet next to their parents’.

The sunrise over Sri Pada, the highest peak in Sri Lanka.

And in that moment I truly realised how different people could live their lives. It sounds like such a simple thing - but that's when I saw so many different ways to live life beyond that fixed corporate stereotype. 

The world is a huge place and there are so many different lifestyles, perspectives, priorities and dreams that are completely different than what I expected.

So if my future wasn’t something I was passionate about, why was I forcing myself to blindly follow in those footsteps?

It’s because of this experience that I changed my majors when I returned back to Sydney, because I realised that when I stripped away all expectations of myself, the things that I was passionate about were my strengths, and those were things I truly wanted to pursue.

It’s because of this experience that I realised working for a purpose was something I saw as a requirement for my career, because I saw how my actions (however small) could leave an impact on someone else, and I wanted to make that part of my life's legacy.

And most of all, it’s because of this experience that I’ve now recognised that the way I think, the decisions I make, and the actions I take, are all choices I have made.

If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.

Recognising failures and mistakes can be challenging and uncomfortable. But living consciously is one of the most liberating feelings in the world, because I know my future is whatever I make of it.

When was the last time you went out of your way to change something you were unhappy or in denial about?

Good luck.

Helen Chan

Helen likes to see herself as an "artist". Someone forever looking at the world, reshaping her world-views, and conveying her perspective. But tbh she's just a recent marketing graduate from the University of Sydney who likes being pretentious sometimes. And travelling. The key to her heart is good music, good food and good company.