“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” | Eleanor Roosevelt
The world I knew before exchange was limited to the postcard city of Sydney where I’ve lived my entire life. Except for a few trips to China to visit relatives when I was younger, I had never been outside of the Sydney metropolitan area, to the outer reaches of New South Wales or interstate, let alone abroad.
Despite (or maybe because of) this, it has always been a simple dream of mine to be able to travel the world while doing things I enjoy. I loved what I saw of the diversity that existed outside my bubble and lived vicariously through photos and videos on Facebook and Instagram.
However, even though travelling was everything I wanted to do, I never imagined my first trip abroad would be so long, and by myself. I felt a mix of excitement and nervousness in the weeks leading up to my departure, and these feelings grew even more intense in the final 10 days.
Going on exchange was the first time I said “I’m going to do this” to something without hesitation and actually went and did it. This is not to say it was a reckless or hasty decision (definitely not!) but rather, it was the first time I chose to step beyond my comfort zone despite the foreignness of everything out there. I showed myself how much courage I had to make a decision like this even though I had never done anything like it before. And all of this was still before my exchange.
During my exchange, I worked at an NGO in the outskirts of Peru’s capital city, Lima for three days a week. My project was called “Learn & Live” and its main objective was to serve as a language programme for the children in Peru, especially during the time that they were not at school (as it was in my case being the summer vacation period).
I worked with three other volunteers in the project from Brazil and Germany and our goal every week was to develop creative and engaging ways to practice English with the children as a way of nurturing a second language. Sometimes this meant leveraging musical skills within our group to keep our interactions exciting, and other times we utilised outdoor spaces and physical activities to cater to different learning styles.
Outside of the project, I did a lot of sightseeing and experiencing local culture, and went as far as living off-the-grid for two straight days! (Mind-blowing in this day and age right?) I experienced the coast, city, desert, mountains and (floating) island life and met people of all walks of life despite being in one country. I made sure to do as much as I could because I wanted to leave 100% richer without any regrets.
I learned a lot from my exchange because I allowed myself to be excited about and vulnerable to the experience at the same time. Being so far from home for the first time and doing it alone was the biggest challenge I had to overcome, but the resilience I found as a result of that challenge is also my greatest prize.
It was OK to take a combi instead of a micro, and it was fun to try lucuma instead of vanilla – I grew to be more accepting of differences and fearless of uncertainties. Whether it was daring to venture into a side street in Cusco, or concentrating all of my efforts to put together a broken sentence in Spanish in the big city of Lima (with words I googled the night before), these small moments are what I lived and learned to appreciate. Even working with children who showed endless bursts of energy with limited attention span challenged me to let go of structure for adaptability, to show more empathy and to practise patience.
I learned a lot living as a local digesting everything I saw and heard day to day. With an open mind, I understood more about local realities and learned to acknowledge how important context and culture were to shaping people’s perspectives.
Exchange gave me the push to be more confident and daring as a 19-year-old who has the whole world ahead of her, as long as she takes the first step.