WASHINGTON -- For many families in the D.C. area, the day begins with a parent urging a sleepy teen to wake up to get to school on time. That same student might need a healthy push to get out the door to make the school bus or take the family car to school.
For Zach Wood, who lives with his father and grandmother in D.C.'s Ward 8, the morning trip to the Bullis School in Potomac had a very different start.
The alarm would go off as early as 4:50 a.m.
"First, I would take the A-4 bus to Anacostia Metro station," Wood says.
Each morning's commute had four or more stops.
"I'd go from Anacostia Metro station to Gallery Place, and then go from Gallery Place to Friendship Heights to get the T-2 -- the only bus that went past Bullis."
The 18-year-old's 2 1/2-hour commute astounded his classmates. But he never told them about the other challenges involved in his daily trips to school -- including the nearly constant exposure to violence in his neighborhood and on the way to school.
Crime and the threat of crime were constant companions.
"Like seeing people getting robbed, and getting robbed myself on a couple of occasions," he says.
By Wood's junior year at Bullis, the money ran out. His father, who worked two jobs to make sure his kids could attend good schools, couldn't manage that fourth year. Wood found an online program and finished his education independently, racking up a raft of honors and awards along the way.
Dr. Peter Sun, who taught Wood at Bullis, recalls the student's powerful intellectual curiosity.
"He'd ask me for reading lists," Sun says.
And he'd do the same with his other teachers.
"He'd go to other faculty members and get lists of books to read over vacation, during the summer -- and he'd read them," Sun says.
Wood would often return to a classroom to continue a discussion that had intrigued him, or work through concepts that interested him.
Wood won a scholarship to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., but wanted to take advantage of some of the summer programs so many schools offer to graduating high school seniors. He'd gotten admission to a number of summer study programs, including one at Yale. Again, money was an obstacle. It would take nearly $12,000 to cover the cost of the courses he'd like to take -- doing a semester's worth of work in just 10 weeks. So he started a crowdsourcing account at GoFundMe and made his case.
He's got the money to go to Yale's summer program now, and is once again, focusing on the future.
"Ideally I would like to go to Harvard Law School," he says, but that's not all: He says he would like to serve as president of the Harvard Law Review, get his Ph.D., then become a university professor at Harvard.
"The other ideal career option I'm considering is entering politics," he says, including a run for governor or the Senate, and then "running for president of the United States."
He knows it's a big dream, and laughs: When he says it out loud, "It's shocking, even to me," but it's a real ambition.
Whichever track he chooses, Wood says, his goal is to shape public policy, in part to assist kids like him. Dr. Sun says that's not surprising. He says Wood is not only a deeply intellectual young man, but also someone who wants to put his academic life to use.
"He sees his learning as something that he's nurturing in himself not only for the betterment of himself, but for the world that he's living in. And I have no doubt that he's going to be doing that," Sun says.
Wood's had his share of struggles but maintains an upbeat outlook. His advice to other students who may be looking for direction and encouragement?
"Find something that interests you. Cultivate a passion -- something that gives you joy."
To contribute to Wood's educational expenses, visit his GoFundMe page.
Wood's writing has been featured in Teen Ink, an online literary magazine.
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