Anitha Aswath: Leadership Lessons from Cultural Exchange [Part 2]

A highlight of my year-long stay in Australia was a 15-day, Central Australian Safari. We were 32, international exchange students and the trip was a transformative and life changing experience. 

During this 2-week road trip, we traveled thousands of kilometers along the length of Australia from Falls Creek in Victoria to Ivanhoe, Broken Hill, Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta, The Uluru in Alice Springs and several other places. We camped and bonded in a way only teenagers can. And through it all, we discovered that we were actually more similar than we were different.

Life Lessons from Camping

Camping in the outback is fun but I learned valuable life lessons from that. Sharing limited space with a rank stranger that I barely knew, amidst the desert sands of Alice Springs; ‘living in a tent’ was more than just an adventure. It required life skills, resilience, and trust. I remember the first day we learned to pitch tents and set up camp. I was rather petite and dwarfed by the rest of the kids who were tall, burly, and boisterous. They finished the job in no time and most kids laughed at me. I took much longer and worked like my life depended on it! I saw this as my personal responsibility to ensure that my tent-mate and I were safe and that our tent would withstand the strong winds of the desert night.

We left for local sightseeing during the day and didn’t return to camp until dusk. When we finally returned, all the tents had collapsed. All except mine. It was the only one standing tall ‘amidst the ruins’. I was relieved that we’d kept the sand, the heat, and insects out of the tent and could rest peacefully, that night. The experience taught me that every job required focus and commitment to execute but intent was at the very heart of it.  

Not Climbing The Ayers Rock

The Ayers Rock or The Uluru for the Australian Aboriginal people is a 348 meter high, monolith. Located in the heart of Alice Springs in Central Australia, the climbing path is said to be 1.6 km long and sometimes described as treacherous.

I was terrified and excited at the prospect of climbing the rock. At the time, I didn’t fully understand how sacred the site is for the aboriginal people. They did not approve of people climbing it. I took off excitedly but before I knew, I was terrified by the smooth, slippery surface and too scared to continue. My brave efforts only got me as far as “chicken rock”. I was distraught.

Of the 32, exchange students from all over the world, I was 1 of only 4 people that hadn’t made it to the top. Upon returning to base, I was determined to change the situation. I wasn’t about to return home, empty-handed. Sure I was embarrassed but I simply had to choose what I now know as success beyond success. I had to stay true to how I played the game. So what if I couldn’t climb the rock? I could walk around it. Right? And that’s exactly what I did. All  9.4 kilometers of it. In sweltering heat. And in steadfast, resolute faith.

In hindsight, I think I realized that day how you define success is determined by what you make of it. I would’ve sat there licking my wounds and feeling miserable but I chose an alternative path that was different and challenging. I found a way and I made it count. 

Transcending Color, Culture, and Communication

Our team was from the US, Canada, Mexico, Germany, England, Holland, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Zimbabwe, South Africa, China, Japan, Malaysia, India, New Zealand, and Australia. That’s 18 different countries in a single bus! We were of different color, cultures and sometimes barely understood each other. And yet, we connected in a way that transcended everything.

We stayed with 4 different families over 12 months and built incredible relationships and made friends. From learning to ski (and failing miserably! 🙂 )to being awestruck at the underground houses in Coober Pedy and being blown away by the magnificence that was Australia, I learned many lessons during that year. I began the journey of finding me. It taught me the power of “belonging” and how it becomes second nature to bring your whole self into everything you do when you truly belong.


Thanks to Rotary International for this gift of a lifetime and for the many host families that nurtured and loved me during my stay. 

What life lessons have travel taught you? How has that shaped your leadership journey? Post a comment, like, or follow my journey. 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 28th and the title has been updated for brevity.  

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