Student wins $2,500 scholarship for essay on tsunami experience

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“I didn’t breath under water. I didn’t stop my prayers. And I didn’t give up hope…”

AMES, Iowa – Six years ago, Onalie Ariyabandhu began writing about her family’s harrowing experience during the Sri Lanka tsunami in 2004. It was just recently that she was able to finish the story, which she submitted to an essay contest. Onalie won the 2012 International Student Voice scholarship sponsored by International Student Protection.

Onalie Ariyabandhu

Onalie, her mother, sister and cousin were swept away in a van as the tsunami hit the town of Galle while her father watched in horror from a nearby supermarket. He jumped into the water after his family. Amazingly, Onalie’s family survived. Onalie received a $2,500 award for her essay on this experience.

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

Onalie 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.

She will return to Sri Lanka next summer to help host a new study abroad program that she helped establish at ISU. Part of the trip will include visiting Galle and the tree that Onalie 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.”

Onalie is a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Ambassador and a member of the International Student Council.

Read her winning essay at

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NEWS RELEASE College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University

Contacts: Onalie Ariyabandhu ( Laura Wille, Liberal Arts & Sciences Communications, (515) 294-7742 (