‘Toothbrush People’ shows impact of international travel

Don Gogniat, author of "Toothbrush People"

Don Gogniat, right, shares a laugh with a local man he met in Ghana during a Semester at Sea trip in the spring of 2010. (SUBMITTED)

By SARAH CHAIN
Daily Record/Sunday News

Don Gogniat has some career advice for young job-seekers: Don’t let your age get larger than the number of countries you’ve explored.

“A global perspective is more and more important,” he said. “And international travel is a good way to get that.”

The former campus executive officer of Penn State York knows what he’s talking about. His involvement with the Semester at Sea program started nearly 30 years ago, and his seventh voyage departs from Nova Scotia Aug. 23.

Gogniat taught geography for his first voyage in 1985, but when Semester at Sea asked him to return in 1990, he took on the global studies course that was required for all students.

Halfway through their trip around the globe, Gogniat shared a travel tip: Take time to smell the roses.

“(It) means to really appreciate a moment that is important to you,” Gogniat said. “Really stopping and thinking about it and sensing everything that’s around you, because some day you’ll be walking down the street and that same sense you felt when you were happy will hit you.”

Gogniat encouraged the students to think of a specific person they had met on the first half of the semester. That person would become their toothbrush person — someone they thought of each morning and night as they brushed their teeth.

“The toothbrush is just a way of having a clue to remember what they felt,” Gogniat said. “It’s a nice way to put things into perspective every morning.”

He adapted his original prompt into an assignment for his 2004 global studies class that required students to write a letter describing their toothbrush people. Gogniat collected the letters and mailed them to the students a year later, hoping the students would think back to their Semester at Sea experience.

During his last trip, in 2010, Gogniat floated the idea of compiling a book of students’ letters. He asked students to star their letters if they had a photo of their toothbrush person that he could use in the book.

After a suggestion from colleague Valerie White, a reference librarian at Penn State York, he also reached out to 2004 and 1990 Semester at Sea students.

“I thought it would be interesting to see if they still thought of their toothbrush person,” White said.

And some people did — “Toothbrush People,” published in March, includes seven letters from 1990 participants, 11 from 2004 students and 21 from 2010.

“The 1990 people, they were hard to get, because I didn’t have them write a letter and return it,” Gogniat said. “I just had them close their eyes.”

But Gogniat said sometimes it takes time for lessons from a semester or experience abroad to really sink in.

Sharon Christ, who learned about Semester at Sea through Gogniat, served as the adult learner coordinator — a liaison between students and the 15 to 20 adult passengers — for the 2004 trip.

At first, the thought of traveling around the world was overwhelming for Christ, who’d had limited overseas experience. But by the end of the semester, the trip had changed her.

“After going in to any other country, coming home and seeing what we as Americans have is just huge,” Christ, now 59, said. “I just couldn’t get over the fact of how rich my life was.”

She keeps a photo on her desk of a teacher and librarian she met in India, in a village of “untouchables” — outcasts, shunned and rejected from society.

“As soon as I look at it, it just takes me back to that time,” Christ said.

Her current role as Penn State York’s director of enrollment management allows her to put to use the cultural knowledge she gained through her trip.

But it’s not just Semester at Sea participants who can have a toothbrush person, Gogniat said. Anyone can take time to smell the roses.

As for the students on board when Semester at Sea departs this month, Gogniat has a new adventure planned. Small groups of students will explore a specific topic — women’s liberation, hip-hop music, etc. — in at least seven different countries during the semester, shooting video and chronicling how their issue changes from place to place.

Gogniat then plans to combine the DVDs into an exhibition, partially funded by a grant from the Cultural Alliance of York, to be called “Atlantic Ocean Cross-cultural Currents: The Blending of Four Continents.”

“Never underestimate how talented kids are when they put their mind to it,” Gogniat said. “They are so good.”

"Toothbrush People" by Don Gogniat and Valerie WhiteMeet Gogniat
Name: Don Gogniat
Age: 66
Lives in: Spring Garden Township
Family: Wife, Deborah
Occupation: Retired
Hobbies: Travel, photography, pocket billiards
Online: Amazon.com. Proceeds from book sales will go to a Semester at Sea scholarship fund.

About Sarah Chain

I'm an avid reader and book lover living and working in downtown York. Follow me on Twitter at @sarahEchain.
This entry was posted in Book news, Inspirational reading, Local author, Nonfiction, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to ‘Toothbrush People’ shows impact of international travel

  1. Pingback: Book Buzz | Author Don Gogniat to speak on ‘Toothbrush People’ at York JCC

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