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How Catastrophe Led to a Life's Purpose

It’s impossible to describe in a paragraph everything Tomás Álvarez Belón (Spain, UWC Atlantic, Georgetown ’18) has accomplished in college. Still, it’s worth a try.

He has been CEO of Georgetown Global Consulting, a student-run service he steered toward working with nonprofits like the Born to Smile Initiative. He was among the first directors of the Caravel, an online international news publication that now has over 100 Georgetown students on staff. Penguin Random House named him one of Spain’s seven most influential people under 25; he has been a leader for TedX Georgetown; and as the 2017 winner of the university’s McTighe Prize, awarded for scholarship and service, Tomás delivered last fall’s convocation address to the incoming first-years.

There he told everyone how he and his family survived when 200,000 other people died.

On December 26, 2004, Tomás, his parents, and two brothers were vacationing on Thailand’s coast when the Boxing Day Tsunami struck Southeast Asia. Almost lost to the waters, the family was separated for two days. Their experiences became the subject of the 2012 film The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.

“Why did I survive when thousands of others passed away?” That question echoed in his mind for months, Tomás told the convocation. Eventually, he said, it “matured into a profound sense of gratitude” — and he replaced it with a new question, one he encouraged his listeners to absorb. “What purpose do I want to give to my life? I understood that through service,” Tomás declared, “I could shape my life to honor those who lost theirs.”

“I have now taught over 200-plus students in my 30 years as a faculty member at Georgetown, and Tomás is my best-ever student,” wrote Demography Professor Elizabeth Stephen in nominating him for the McTighe Prize. “To say that he is a gem,” she added, “is an understatement.”