Exchange Resources
Estimated reading time:
5 mins

The Struggles of Returning from Exchange


If you have just returned from an exchange, congratulations and welcome back! It feels strange to have returned doesn't it? Unfortunately we can only reminisce about the past, but luckily we can make the most of the present and plan for the future. Let's take a look at some of the ways to cope with waking up everyday in your own normal bed and going about our day.

Goodbyes are the hardest part of any exchange

This piece will be set out in two sections. In the first part, we will explore the theme of the feeling of detachment and nostalgia and adopting a new perspective in where you live. The second delves deeper into how to embrace the experiences you’ve had on exchange and reflecting on privilege and gratitude.

Part I: The Restless Return

Upon landing in Australia, there are two things that hit us: the wave of thought - be it reflection, or remembering that you have responsibilities - and the heat wave. There is a piece of us which wishes we were back in our host countries. Foreign languages, imaginative architecture, and foods which stimulate the palate in new ways. We realise that the cost of living is more affordable (in most countries) and the friends we made are now peppered all around the world instead of down the hallway.

Reverse culture shock is something we experience when our usual surroundings feel slightly more unfamiliar upon returning from long durations overseas. Usually we are moved and shaped by the experiences we come across. But the challenge is communicating this to others without the essence being lost in translation. Other symptoms of reverse culture shock are wanderlust and boredom.

What you could try
  • Reflect your learnings into daily life
    There are many moments which define your exchange experience for you to look at in retrospect. Take time to pause and think about how you could apply them in your personal and professional life.

  • Share your experiences
    It may feel unarticulated the first few times you tell people about your exchange, but the more you recount it, the smoother you can make it flow. Sharing with others who have been on exchange and AIESECers is a good starting point, as we all share that common understanding.

  • Approach things from a different perspective
    This is perfectly summarised in this excerpt from The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton:

    “If we could apply a travelling mindset to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles”

    Challenge your expectations of the country you call home and adopt curiosity and appreciation of the things known and unknown to you.

Part II: What Your Worldview Means to You

There are a lot of things that we take for granted living in Australia and being challenged in a new environment allows for new and possibly uncomfortable perspectives. Having stayed in a basic accommodation in regional Taiwan, I now appreciate small things like the freedom to have hot water showers in winter and having a car to drive around in. While some things can be enlightening or manageable, there are unfortunately instances which can be more uncomfortable. Some exchange participants I’ve met have talked about living in communities where poverty is right in their face. We may somehow find ourselves witnessing first-hand the dark face of the human condition differently to the #firstworldproblems we face in our own country.

The emotions we feel towards these issues in the world are raw and powerful. How one reacts and grows from these concerns and behaviours depends on personal, social, and other factors. The way your worldview is blended is personal, but how it matures can influence your life and the decisions you make.

Sometimes all we need is a Lisa Simpson in our life

What you could try
  • Accepting the current state
    Even when we are removed from the issues, we can still feel strongly about it. Resentment spawns from not accepting that the world is as it is, and we may build up negativity towards our inability to do something. Accepting that the world is currently the way it is then gives us freedom to explore the possibilities of what we can do with our worldview and the issues we are passionate about.

  • Expand your understanding
    Learn more about these topics, especially if you feel passionate about it. It can be as simple as engaging in a conversation with someone to share ideas and see it from another’s perspective.  Be sure to reflect upon how it affects you.

  • Empower yourself to make change
    If you are not truly satisfied with the status quo, challenge it. The possibilities of what you can do are a product of your experiences and the courage to take it to the next step. Translate your view of the world into action when you see the opportunity, whether it be joining or starting a social enterprise aimed at those issues, a movement like AIESEC, or however way you imagine it happening.

I would like to leave you with this image. The way we interpret our exchanges will influence the way we live our daily lives upon returning home. What you choose to do with it has the potential to change yourself and to change the world. Leadership develops when we are unafraid to fight for something we truly care for, but we develop just as equally when we are unafraid to be vulnerable to ourselves.

Thanks to Stephanie, Enoch, and Christina for their contributions to this article
Daniel Chong

Daniel is an alumnus of AIESEC in Australia and a University of Sydney graduate. When he's not busy with work or cracking dad jokes, Daniel is usually strolling through an art gallery or thinking of cool things to do.