SALT LAKE CITY — Two years later than expected, and with a life perspective about a million miles from where she started, Shonti Breisch graduated Saturday with the Westminster College Class of 2011.

Life throws changeups when you least expect them. Shonti — pronounced Shawn-tee — got hers the day after Christmas, 2004, when her scuba diving session in the Indian Ocean, just off the Thailand coast, ended almost before it began. After just 15 minutes, and without seeing a single fish, the guides called everyone back in the boat. The water was acting crazy. There was a strong undertow; bubbles were everywhere. Someone said there was an earthquake.

The surge that tugged at the scuba boat kept building until it found land. Shonti's 15-year-old sister Kali and 16-year-old brother Jai were still in their hotel sleeping in the resort village of Khao Lak when the wall of water hit. Jai was carried almost a mile inland and somehow survived. Kali was not so fortunate; she was among the 280,000 fatalities in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Dazed, numb and bewildered, the Breisch family — Stu, an emergency room doctor, his wife Sally, Shonti and Jai — flew home to Salt Lake City, where among the outpouring of sympathy from a community not knowing quite how to help were thousands of dollars contributed directly to the Breisches. The money was turned into a foundation and sent directly to Thailand.

Meanwhile, Shonti went back to the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, where she'd started college in the fall. She was 18 and, quite frankly, glad to be free. The oldest sibling, she felt like she'd spent her life taking care of her little brother and sister — a role that took on added weight when their mother, Karen, died of cancer when Shonti was six. "I was so done with getting calls at night saying come and get me," she recalls, "so looking forward to being on my own."

Then, suddenly, her little sister was gone, and the realization she'd never again get to come and get her was devastating.

She couldn't concentrate. She stared out the classroom window for two weeks and then withdrew from school. She came back to Salt Lake City and got a job, then she got two jobs, then she got three jobs. "All I did was work and sleep," she says. "I didn't think, I didn't do anything, I spent no money."

After five months, she had $4,000 in the bank and was still floundering.

She took the $4,000 and bought a plane ticket to Thailand; she was going to run the trust on site.

It was good therapy, but it wasn't instant. "I was sick for a week," she says. "I didn't eat, I threw up all the time. My dad called and said, 'every time you throw up, throw up one of those bad memories.' So I did that. It helped. It was good advice."

For eight months, she stayed in Khao Lak, working, cleaning up, helping people, healing.

"I realized, well, I better help clean this mess up because this is my mess too," says Shonti. Every day, she worked hand-in-hand with people who "not only lost family members like we did, but they also lost houses and jobs."

The work didn't give any college credit — but without it, Shonti may never have returned to school.

Back in Salt Lake City, Westminster College learned of Shonti's uncommon humanitarian efforts and honored her with its Exemplary Achievement Award in 2006. The award came with a scholarship.

That fall, Shonti was back in school.

On Saturday, she completed the circle, paying Westminster back for its largesse with a hard-earned diploma and rave reviews from her professors and Westminster administrators. "This amazing young woman has overcome such tragedy and has dealt with her sister's death in such a remarkable way — by giving back," said Krista DeAngelis, Westminster's associate director of communications. "She is an incredible inspiration to those who have faced tragedy, yet still completed their educational goals."

Shonti graduated in art with minors in chemistry and music. Ultimately, she'd like to be a doctor, like her father. This June, she plans to apply to medical school.

"Life doesn't really stop, so you have to keep going," she says.

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But she will always carry the memory with her.

"To this day, people say to me 'I can't imagine,' " she says. "And you know what I say? 'Neither can I.' I still can't believe it happened, and I survived it. I know I will never forget it. It changed the way I see the world. Not in a bad way or a better way, just a new way. I see the big picture in a way I didn't before. When people tell me something bad that's happened to them, I just listen. I don't try to tell them what happened to me. I can't expect anyone to see the way I see."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: lbenson@desnews.com