When I was in high school in the 60s, the only person of color at my Milwaukee suburban school was a foreign exchange student from Thailand. Pradit was different from the rest of us, and we pretty much ignored him. Kids aren't always thoughtful and they're not always kind.

Like most everyone in my hometown, I came from a working-class family. We never traveled. So I'm always asked how I became so absorbed in global cultures. My life began to change dramatically after landing my first job - working for an airline, with travel benefits.

One day I went on an African safari. I felt like I'd been beamed into the living pages of National Geographic.

That job and my travel benefits are long gone but not my global curiosity. Today I travel alone - and out of my comfort zone.

Sometimes my adventures take me to remote and isolated jungles, such as the Amazon, Papua New Guinea or Namibia. I've photographed the great wildebeest migration, mountain gorillas, Bengal tigers and newborn pandas. I've photographed spiritual sunrises from Mt. Sinai, on sand dunes in the Sahara and from mountaintops in Bhutan and Tibet. I've shared meals with nomadic families in Syria, Mali and Lebanon, drunk vodka with the KGB, and been under daily surveillance in Myanmar, Turkmenistan and North (yes, North) Korea. I've been blessed by Buddhist monks, Hindu priests and Muslim Imams, and participated in healing ceremonies with indigenous shamans. I've also been to too many places that have horrific histories, including Iran, Cambodia and Rwanda, and other dangerous regions - particularly in the Middle East and Africa - that are suffering endless civil wars.

Over the years, I've shared my photos and stories with others, who told me they began paying closer attention to geography, current events, geopolitical issues and human rights. It became clear that those who might benefit the most from my experiences are schools. So in 2005, Cultural Jambalaya was created, using global photography and narratives to promote understanding and respect for all people. Our award-winning nonprofit provides free programming that educators use in the classroom to broaden world views of students, to ignite curiosity and discussion, and to shatter stereotypes.

More than four decades of cultural travel have broadened my thinking and given my life a deeper meaning - one that I never saw coming when I was a young, uninformed classmate of Pradit. I wish I could talk to him today. I'd not only apologize for not helping him fit into our school, but I'd assure him that today in America there are so many initiatives that are advancing cultural acceptance and understanding.

Mostly I've learned how we are all the same. I believe recognizing each other's similarities helps us to respect each other's differences, which is the first step toward building cultural equity and an inclusive society.

Gail Shore is the president of Shore to Shore Communications, Inc., and the founder and executive director of Cultural Jambalaya. www.culturaljam.org

What's on your mind?
We'd like to hear it. For writer's guidelines, go to www.womenspress.com. Email your 450-word personal essay to editor@womenspress.com.