Tsunami Survivor Takes on Higher Education

He survived the tsunami and then drifted for eight days at sea before his miraculous rescue. Today, Indonesian Rizal Shahputra (search) is gearing up for another challenge — obtaining a university degree, equipped with no more than determination and the words of his dead father.

Shahputra will start English lessons at a university in central Kuala Lumpur (search) on April 27, the first step toward his dream of getting a degree in communications technology and a career in Internet and multimedia.

"Before the tsunami, my father told me never to live on anyone's pity and to make something of myself," said Shahputra, who has high school education and speaks only his native Bahasa Indonesian. "He told me not to end up like many lazy people in my village. Now I have this chance to make his wish come true," he said.

Shahputra's father, a 45-year-old teacher, his mother and two of his three siblings were killed in the Dec. 26 tsunami in Aceh province on Sumatra (search) island. Their bodies were never recovered, becoming statistics in the estimated 165,000 Indonesians dead and missing from the disaster.

The 20-year-old Shahputra was cleaning a beach side mosque in Calang town when the earthquake-spawned tsunami crashed ashore. He had no time to run and was swept out to sea with untold others. The sea swallowed everyone in his sight while he clung to an uprooted tree.

"For days I could not sleep thinking of these people and my family, but I prayed a lot, for myself and for them," he said.

"Now I am more calm but I have not forgotten how these people suffered and died," said Shahputra, who lived on rainwater until he was rescued by a passing ship that brought him to Malaysia. Since being discharged from the hospital on Jan. 13, he has lived in an Indonesian diplomat's house.

Shahputra was one of three people known to have survived at sea for several days after the tsunami. Another Indonesian, Ari Afrizal, was adrift for 14 days before being rescued and brought to Malaysia. He is now in Indonesia but hopes to return soon to begin a job at an electronics factory in Kuala Lumpur. A 23-year-old Indonesian woman, Melawati, was at sea for five days. She also was rescued by a ship.

Wearing a black shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, Shahputra talked excitedly about his future in college during the interview with The Associated Press.

"I hope to make many friends. ... I have no relatives here and it can get lonely at times," he said. "God has given me a second chance to live and I am determined to use it to become a better and successful person."

But tears welled up when Shahputra spoke of his emotional trip last month to meet with 10 surviving relatives in Aceh.

"I saw images of my father and mother everywhere I went," Shahputra said, his voice choking. "I miss my family very much and sometimes the pain is too much to bear."

Shahputra said the trip hardened his resolve to start life afresh in Malaysia: The devastation of the tsunami that flattened much of Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh, and surrounding areas was "simply shocking."

"My brother wanted me to stay on in Aceh and even offered to support me," Shahputra said. "But I cannot bear waking up every morning to witness nothing but destruction around me, I simply cannot take it."

Shahputra said he plans to "turn my sorrow into strength so that, God willing, I can study hard and fulfill the wishes of my father."

Shahputra's pursuit of a tertiary education is made possible by the private University College Sedaya International, which will waive his tuition and hostel fees while providing him a campus job.

"Rizal is a classic story of triumph over adversity," said Steven Ng, a university spokesman. "His determination to survive the ordeal offers valuable lessons to other students."

Shahputra believes his survival was a divine act. "I believe the angels were with me. ... They saved me from the tsunami and brought me to Malaysia to rebuild my life."

Asked if he envisaged returning to Aceh someday, he said: "Sure, if I am in a position to help in rebuilding my homeland. But for now I must pick up the pieces of my own life."

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