While many of Acacia Zodrow’s Grant High School classmates were racing toy cars on the floor as little kids, she was cruising through South African evenings in a Range Rover to watch lions feed. At age ten, when most kids were climbing on the jungle gym at the playground, Zodrow hiked across an entire tropical island. She has lived in Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Fiji and Lesotho. She has traveled to 23 other countries, all before the age of 13.
Through her time abroad, she developed a perspective on culture that her friends in the United States don’t have. “I think that living overseas has made me more able to understand people,” says the 17-year-old Grant senior. It “gave me the patience to understand.”
The overseas travel was because her dad was a program director for the Peace Corp, an American non-profit organization that helps people in developing countries by rebuilding and educating the community.
Steven Zodrow spent his time establishing relationships between the Peace Corp staff and local governments and organizations in his assigned countries. His job required moving to a new country every few years. Constant relocation gave Acacia Zodrow an opportunity to experience drastically different cultures.
Zodrow was born in Olympia, Wash., in February 1996. Two weeks after her birth, Zodrow and her family moved to Bangladesh, a country next to the Bay of Bengal and surrounded by India on three sides.
When she was two, her family moved to Lesotho, a country in Africa that is landlocked by South Africa. In the U.S., parents have to be careful that their children know to look both ways before crossing a roadway. But Lesotho had far more dangerous issues, her parents learned.
The family would occasionally go on “sundowners” – evening safari rides. On one such trip, they stopped to rest and young Acacia wandered away. Not long after, the group heard the loud cackles of hyenas fighting over food in the distance. The little girl made it back to the group, scared but in one piece.
After leaving Lesotho, the family moved to Virginia so Zodrow’s mother could go back to college in the states. After her graduation, the family moved to Azerbaijan, a part of the former Soviet Union. By that time, Zodrow was 8 and her father could take her to the villages he worked in.
“I thought it was valuable rather than seeing the country capital to go out into the smaller communities and be able to experience what life was like out there,” her dad recalls. “Any time it was possible to include her, that was a huge advantage to my work.”
Zodrow liked exploring and said she respected villagers for doing the “down and dirty, just gotta do it work. The kind you have to get up at five or six in the morning just to slaughter goats,” which Zodrow saw a man doing one day while on her way to school.
In Azerbaijan, Zodrow became close with a hardworking woman named Tarana, who served as the family’s maid. Whenever Zodrow’s parents were away at work, Tarana showed the young Zodrow things like the local market and snippets of the Azare culture.
During the family’s stay in Azerbaijan, Zodrow’s parents were often busy, which meant the house was often left to Zodrow and Tarana. They would keep themselves entertained by finding elaborate recipes to cook. “It was kind of like she was there to be with me and along the way we made dinner,” Zodrow remembers.
The two also traded knowledge of their native cultures. “I didn’t realize it then but looking back there was a lot of cultural exchange between her and I,” she says. “I remember saying phrases and she’d ask what it meant and vice versa… in a way it was a word game.”
When it came to the end of the family’s time in Azerbaijan, Zodrow remembers how hard it was for her to leave Tarana. “She was the hardest person to leave, even more than my friends. Through birthday parties and school, Tarana was always there,” Zodrow says.
The family later moved to Fiji, where Zodrow remembers trekking across the entire island of Viti Levu and staying in villages, one of which was known for having cannibals.
By 2006, the family decided they wanted to be closer to home, so they moved to Hawaii in order to be back in the United States.
In Hawaii, Zodrow enrolled in a local public school. There, Hawaiian and Filipino students bullied her because she was white. She faced constant exclusion and was labeled as the “white devil.”
“I can remember times of just being in school, crying, not wanting to go,” Zodrow says.
Her parents transferred her to private school but the exclusion continued. No matter what Zodrow did, she was always reduced to just being “the white girl.”
Hawaii was not what they had expected. The family wanted to live in the United States again, figuring it would give them a real sense of home. Ultimately, her parents decided to move to Portland to be in a familiar place and be closer to family.
“We moved to be closer to Hawaii, but realized it’s still not close enough,” Zodrow recalls.
Entering Laurelhurst K-8 as a seventh grader, Zodrow had never experienced the social dynamic of middle school before. When she tried to connect with kids her own age, she found that she had missed out on life in the states.
When people talked about TV characters like SpongeBob or Lizzy McGuire, she was lost. She had never heard popular music or eaten a Twinkie.
It was apparent to her that she had a different perspective on life than many of her peers. She noticed that kids had little interest in educating themselves on things they were unfamiliar with. “Americans tend to fall into ruts with things that they don’t know rather than finding out about it for themselves,” she says.
Zodrow found that the lack of diversity at Laurelhurst made fitting in harder for her. “I was used to going to school with people who didn’t look like me,” Zodrow remembers.
Her travels helped her develop a sympathetic view on things like immigration. She says she’d like to see the U.S. government take more interest in helping the places where many immigrants are coming from, such as Mexico.
“I think rather than keeping them out, use the same money to try to improve the countries, giving them a
reason to stay there,” Zodrow says.
Grace Johnson has been friends with Zodrow since the first day of seventh grade. Johnson was in a similar situation to Zodrow at the time – it was the first day at Laurelhurst for both of them and neither had friends. But Johnson recalls that it was Zodrow’s outside perspective on life that drew her in.
“She would wear things she got in Russia or wherever and I just thought it was cool,” Johnson says.
Five years later, Johnson is still intrigued by Zodrow’s past.
“Since she’s lived everywhere she has a grasp on different cultures so she looks at things that way, she compares them in her mind,” Johnson says. “I find it really interesting that she knows that and she’s actually lived there and it’s just not out of a textbook, it’s from experience.”
Today, Zodrow lives in the Hollywood district and still finds adventure, though the love she has for traveling can never be matched. “I don’t think anything can fill the need I have for traveling, except for traveling,” she says. “I don’t feel like I need to be moving but it’s definitely something missing in my life.”
But she still finds a way to throw herself out of her normal routine, like late night bowling with her family on a school night. “I like not always being on a schedule if I have the opportunity to. I like doing spontaneous stuff.” she says.
Zodrow isn’t keeping to the norm al route of searching for colleges in the U.S. She has other ideas in mind. After high school, Zodrow is hoping to attend a college in England or Canada.
Whatever school she chooses, Zodrow sees a future for herself in design. The summer before her junior year, she entered a design contest and won a weeklong internship at Wieden+Kennedy. Seeing the jobs firsthand confirmed to her that she wants to be a designer. Zodrow says the draw to design is that it allows her to be creative and she can take it with her anywhere in the world.
Zodrow’s adventurous childhood has prepared her for what the world has to throw at her as she makes the transition into adulthood. “I think going to college will be easier for me because I know how to make where I am feel like home and I know how to connect with people,” she says. “If you stay in another country, why would you stay in the five star hotel and not experience where the locals live?” ♦