Taking action for SDGs: lessons from my six week exchange

For my last summer break at uni, I was committed to make it count by spending it on something meaningful for myself. I had planned to do an internship of some sort to build my resume. Things took a sharp turn when I sat down and did a personal SWOT analysis – I realised I had little to no clue of who I was, who I wanted to be and where I wanted to go in life.

I asked myself whether I needed that internship or whether I needed to place myself in an uncomfortable position outside Australia. Having lived in the same country for most of my life, I had a simple yet straightforward plan for myself. Finish uni, get a grad job in Australia, work a nine to five, retire and die. I thought to myself, is that all there is to life? Am I content with just living life, checking off to-dos lists that someone else wrote for teens with no directions to follow? Those thoughts didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to make the most of the life I was blessed with. The only problem was, I didn’t know where to begin.

All I knew was that I needed to get out of my comfort zone, to get lost to find myself (as cheesy as that sounds). Thus began my journey to go on an overseas exchange through AIESEC, focusing on youth leadership through the exchange.

How I took action to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)

AIESEC’s Global Volunteer Projects are all SDG aligned. I wanted to take practical steps towards SDGs rather than just advocate or raise awareness. This was one of the key factors, which motivated me to take on a Global Volunteer program. The project I applied for was designed to contribute towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 4.7:

‘By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.’

The project was to ‘Educate Slovakia,’ it aimed to improve ‘intercultural understanding and global mindset of Slovak youth to support their development in leadership skills.’

3 Lessons from my teaching project

  • To seek to understand before judging someone in according to my values

I use to think that there are universal truths or values that everyone abides by. I lived my first two to three weeks trying to align people to what I thought was ‘common sense’ for everyone. Needless to say, it was exhausting for the people around me and myself. Since then, I’ve taken steps to learn to let that go. I’ve felt more liberated day by day as I accepted the differences in thoughts and peoples’ way of life.

  • Let go of certainty to learn: to live with the change and uncertainty in this world

I love planning my day and vacations. It eliminates most of the uncertainties that could ever throw me off-guard. At the same time, my over preparation for the ‘adventures’ I wanted to have defeated the original goals I set for my exchange. I was visiting places that I spent hours researching and reading about. I followed routes I had saved on the google maps,  downloaded for offline access. I dined at restaurants and cafes I searched up on three different food review apps.

I found myself chasing time. I had my eyes almost glued to my phone to make sure that we were staying on schedule: in the right place at the right time. I only spent around 20 per cent of my time enjoying the things I planned. I realised that my obsession with finding certainty was eating away at the rare opportunity to immerse myself in these amazing European cultures. Ultimately, I decided to spend the last two weekends enjoying myself in Budapest and Bratislava, only allowing myself to list three things to accomplish for the day. It was definitely worth the change!

  • Cross-cultural understanding comes from a place of curiosity.

I went on exchange thinking that I was going to educate Slovak youth. Instead, these students have inspired me to do more with the privilege I have. Although the knowledge they had of Australia didn’t extend beyond ‘kangaroos’ and ‘koalas’, they were inquisitive enough to ask many questions about our flag that bears the union jack, the stolen generation and why I went to Slovakia.

All these questions showed the relentless curiosity they had about the world and other people. It made me think about all the times I had taken knowledge for granted, to accept ‘facts’ the way they are. I realised that I had numbed my curious mind in response to the large flow of information that I shove into my brain every single day. Hands down, this was the most confronting lesson for me on my exchange.

‘Without action, the best intentions in the world are nothing more than that: intentions.’

– Jordan Belfort.

My six weeks in Slovakia were the perfect opportunity for me to take action, develop myself and make a difference in this world. I would like to thank everyone who made this experience possible!


Maggie Chen is currently president of AIESEC, which is a global youth-led organisation striving to achieve peace and fulfilment of humankind’s potential. Find out more about AIESEC and the exchange programs via anu@aiesecaustralia.org


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