Photograph by Raymond Patrick
Teachers often tell students to “think global, act local.” After eight years as an educator in Owings Mills, Maryland, Diana Gross decided to take that aphorism out for a spin. In late 2011, she embarked on a yearlong sabbatical to digitally connect students and teachers by bringing technology and training to underserved communities and build cultural bridges that transcend distance.
The cornerstone of the 42-year-old teacher’s curriculum is her “Tell Your Own Story” workshops—mobile media production courses focused on photo, video, and blogging—which she taught in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Her mission now extended for another year, Gross is advancing her Southeast Asia projects while raising funds to bring her 21st-century tech curriculum to Africa and the Middle East.
Who better than a Traveling Teacher to help a new generation of international Internet users share their stories one byte at a time? “Never before in my life have I felt that I was doing exactly what I am meant to be doing,” says Gross. “Right now, I couldn’t be happier.”
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: Why is travel important?
Diana Gross: Travel enriches our lives in a way that absolutely nothing else can. It’s impossible to be jaded or lose faith in humanity when we are able to meet so many amazing people around the world. Now, with technology, we are truly a global community.
NGT: Can you point to one trip or experience that ignited your curiosity about the world?
DG: When I was a kid, my parents packed up our family van and drove us across country to California, into Mexico, and back again. Somewhere in Mexico, my sisters and I all became cranky and tired of being so far away from home at the same time. My father found a small place selling hamburgers and French fries, and managed to use his Spanish to order. Seeing that showed me that it’s possible to travel far from our comfort zones and still find a bit of it when we need it.
NGT: What inspired you to travel in the way that has resulted in your being chosen as a Traveler of the Year?
DG: Two years ago, I was teaching in a school where every student had a laptop and every classroom had a wireless projector. During an assembly about girls’ education in Afghanistan, we were shown a photograph of four student computer stations that had been cobbled together with parts from donated computers. The juxtaposition between the two realities epitomized the global digital divide.
NGT: Who is your hero and why?
DG: My grandma, Ana Kinik, who left the small village of Begec, Serbia, in 1913 at the age of six with her family to cross the Dinaric Alps to the Adriatic Sea, where they set sail to the United States. Last August, my father, mother, sister, and I traveled to Serbia, found her birth record, and retraced her journey to the sea. How they did that in 1913 is beyond me!
NGT: Do you have a personal motto or mantra that embodies your approach to life and travel?
DG: I borrow it from Amelia Earhart, another hero of mine:
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”
NGT: Do you have a favorite travel book or film?
NGT: What was your most surprising food experience on your travels?
DG: I’ve eaten tarantula, cow’s brain, and fish eyeballs. One night, my friend Lori ordered pork in a red ant sauce. I tried to eat it, but all those tiny little ants looking up at me was just too much. It’s the only thing I’ve never been able to eat.
NGT: Who is the most memorable person you’ve met while traveling?
DG: The 72-year-old Mongolian grandmother who saw herself on my iPad for the first time. We couldn’t understand each other, but we bonded that day. She seemed to have a very deep understanding of life that she wanted to convey through holding hands and looking into my eyes.
NGT: What's one place that you think everyone should visit?
DG: Travel to a place that has been considered an “enemy” of your country. When I was in Moscow and taking the train along the Trans-Siberian route, I looked around at all the kind, wonderful Russian people I was meeting, and thought, “In my childhood, you were the people I was told to fear. You are them?” It puts politics and fear into perspective.
NGT: What’s next?
DG: I am currently working with the Ponheary Ly Foundation to help a group of students in Siem Reap, Cambodia, start their own digital media production businesses so they can create secure futures for themselves. As one student put it, “We’ve tasted the future, and now none of us want to go back.”
Introducing the 2014 Travelers of the Year
National Geographic Traveler celebrates individuals who travel with passion and purpose, have an exceptional story to tell, and represent a style of travel, motivation, or method that can inform and inspire us all. Discovery is the destination for these travelers, who are driven by curiosity and transported by passion to overcome any obstacle along the way. On Traveler’s 30th anniversary, our third annual list proves that there’s no barrier to entry for anyone on a mission to embrace the world and bring about positive change. Get to know the honorees in photos and interviews.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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