Jennifer Cook always considered herself outside the status quo.
Instead of celebrity crush photos inside her locker at Kenmore Middle School in Landover, she had a "Save the Whales" movement poster. Rather than going to the movies with friends in her days at Laurel High School, she went to the Laurel library to read hard bound encyclopedias to learn about the world.
For Cook, reading worldly stories turned into traveling the world over the last 27 years.
A public speaker and published author, Cook, 42, is now back in Laurel after starting her travel company, The Wonder of the World, where she shares the diversities and possibilities outside everyone's own backyard.
"What I'm trying to do is help people discover what's so wonderful about the world, but also inspire them to preserve it," Cook said. "If you can show people how valuable and beautiful something is, they'll care and when we care about things, we want to protect them."
Cook's cultural and nature trips — which she calls "journeys" — allow people to explore a country's history, art, cuisine and environment, while avoiding the pitfalls of modern-day tourism that Cooks says are contributing to their destruction.
Most importantly, Cook said, every journey and seminar raises money for companion causes that are donated as part of the proceeds to help preserve the planet's cultural and natural beauty.
"I really think there's a substantial difference between being a real traveler and being a tourist," Cook said. "I've seen people trampling the corral, touching animals and pictures they're not supposed to touch and completely disregarding cultural morals. This kind of stuff really breaks my heart."
Cook said her outlook on other cultures changed when, at 15 years old, she traveled to Germany alone to visit a pen pal after frequent letter exchanges. Although her mother worried about her daughter's safety, Cook said she used her own baby sitting money to buy a plane ticket.
"I wasn't even nervous at that point because I didn't really know what I was getting into," Cook said. "I was shocked when I got there and nobody was speaking English because [my pen pal] wrote me in English. ... Everything was so foreign."
Cook said she stayed with the German family for five weeks in a remote town in Bavaria, where the culture debunked her "American assumptions" of an English-speaking community and medical practices.
Her itch to travel continued as she graduated from Laurel High, Salisbury University and Brandeis University, where she received a doctorate in English and American literature.
While working as an English professor at Bentley University, Cook said she fulfilled her wanderlust nature to travel by presenting at international conferences in many places, including Britain, Australia, Argentina, France, Spain, Turkey and Denmark.
Other travels have also taken her to dozens of other countries, including New Zealand, Japan, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Monaco, Greece, Norway, Uruguay and Guatemala.
But Laurel remained her home.
Growing up, Cook said she appreciated the wonders of her hometown, learning of her stepfather, Leamon "Butch" Tuttle, and his family history in the Laurel community, beginning with his grandfather's work at the historic train station. Tuttle's father owned the Katherine Shop on Fourth and Montgomery streets, she said, and Tuttle worked for the Main Street post office for more than 35 years.
"Most people tend to take home for granted," she said. "When you talk to people, it can also remind you about what's special where you come from."
In 2014, Cook left her position at Bentley and moved to Britain to focus on the formation of her company, which launched its website in 2015.
For her environmentally friendly and "anti-tourism tours," Cook hires local guides and stays in local establishments.
"It won't be one of these superficial tours that I see every time with the huge group following the person with the umbrella," she added. "I also don't go anywhere with anybody that I haven't personally been, experienced and loved. These are places that I've been, I know the locals, I have these deep connections and often I speak the language."
During travels with Wonder of the World, Cook said each trip varies in length, but is usually a week or two long, with small groups each week. Within each journey, Cook includes elements to discover the country's beauty through historical, artistic and natural sites, she explained, as well as harnesses that inspiration.
Her next journey will take interested travelers to Florence, Italy in June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 flood, which covered and damaged its renaissance art with mud and fuel.
"But it's also a very inspiring story because volunteers from around the world came to Florence and helped save the art. They were called 'mud angels,'" Cook said. "In tradition of the mud angels, not only are we going to experience all of the amazing art, but we're actually going to be restoring one of those paintings that was covered in mud and destroyed in the flood."