EIGHT years after surviving the tsunami which killed 230000 people in 2004, 16-year-old Sara Finestone is ready to take on the world.
The Pearson High School Grade 11 pupil was one of eight conference attendees – out of 350 – who were given merit awards for high-quality participation and achievement at the Global Young Leaders Conference in the US, held from June 22 to July 4.
She spent three weeks with high school pupils from around the world discussing global issues, visiting American universities and watching Broadway shows.
"I was nervous to travel overseas by myself for the first time since my aunt passed away in the tsunami,” Sara said.
Her family were on holiday on Thailand’s Phi Phi island when the tsunami – caused by a strong undersea earthquake off Indonesia’s Java island – struck.
Sara was on the beach with her father, Phillip Finestone, her three sisters, Emma, Isabella and Sophia, and her uncle and cousin, when enormous waves surged towards them. Her mother, Riekie, was not with them at the time and the family was only reunited much later.
Phillip grabbed the girls and ran, leading them up onto the roof of a two-storey building.
But as the massive waves continued to pound them, weakening the building so that half of the roof collapsed, her father placed them in an indigenous tree growing up against the building.
They were stuck there for about six hours not knowing whether they would survive.
After the water subsided, her father led them up a mountain, fearing a repeat of the tsunami.
They were rescued by boat the next day and taken to Phuket, where they were herded into the town hall with thousands of other survivors.
Sara’s aunt, Dillie Findlay, died in the disaster.
"After 2½ years of counselling, I can look at the good things now,” Sara said. "It is because of that experience [being in the tsunami] that my parents encourage me to pursue every opportunity. You only live once.”
During the conference in America, Sara was selected as one of the top eight students who spoke at three of the world’s top universities – Columbia University, New York University and American University.
The American University deputy admissions head was so impressed by her that she was invited to apply for a bursary at the Washington DC-based university.
Crowned as her school’s Miss Personality this year, Sara describes herself as someone who is "friendly and approachable, energetic, sees things through and sticks to commitments”.
Her favourite subjects are dramatic arts and mathematics. She hopes to study towards a degree that will allow her to bring both of her passions together, either at an American or a London university. "Those are the world centres of drama,” she said.
Her advice for young people is to persevere. "Everyone has setbacks in life – whether it be losing a parent, experiencing tsunamis or failing a test. But if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything.”
Sara said her parents and sisters were her role models.
"My family is the centre of my life. The tsunami experience brought us closer together.”