Iowa State student wins scholarship for essay on her tsunami-survival experience

AMES, Iowa – “I didn’t breathe under water. I didn’t stop my prayers. And I didn’t give up hope…”

Onalie Ariyabandhu

Six years ago, Onalie Ariyabandhu began writing those words about her family’s harrowing experience during the Sri Lanka tsunami in 2004. She recently was able to finish the story, which she submitted to an essay contest. And she won -- the 2012 International Student Voice magazine $2,500 scholarship sponsored by International Student Protection.

More than 700 international students studying abroad entered the competition with essays about an experience from their lives and how it influenced who they are today. Another Iowa State student -- Phylip Karei, a senior in mechanical engineering from Kenya -- was one of 10 finalists.

Ariyabandhu, her mother, sister and cousin were swept away in a van as the tsunami hit the town of Galle. Her father watched in horror from a nearby supermarket, jumping into the water after his family. Amazingly, Ariyabandhu’s family survived.

“It’s not only the cash reward,” she said about the competition. “It was a chance for me to express my feelings and everything I went through.”

Ariyabandhu was 14 at the time of the tsunami. She is now a triple major at Iowa State University studying economics, international studies and environmental studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She plans to graduate from ISU in spring 2014 and then attend graduate school to study policy affairs or international policy.

Next summer, she will return to Sri Lanka to help host a new ISU study abroad program that she helped to establish. Part of the trip will include visiting Galle and the tree that Ariyabandhu said saved her life during the tsunami.

The experience made her more confident, she said. “I realized that if I could overcome that trauma, there can’t be anything I can’t come out of.”

Read her winning essay at