Friends hold out hope for USF grad

TAMPA — As his father scanned the Pacific Ocean from a search helicopter Monday, friends prayed for a missing University of South Florida graduate to turn up safe in Costa Rica.

A riptide current swept Aly Lakdawala, 21, into deep water Saturday afternoon. Friends from USF who were on a two-week volunteer service trip managed to swim back to shore. Lakdawala did not.

"We still have hope that he's alive and fighting," said friend Anthony Phillips, 24, who was not on the trip. "That's all that we really can hope for until we hear otherwise."

As the Costa Rican coast guard swept the ocean, USF administrators sent the dean of international affairs to support Lakdawala's father.

They also plan to review policies and procedures for such trips to see whether the university should make any changes to enhance student safety.

"We'll be looking at everything," USF president Judy Genshaft said.

Lakdawala, whose family lives in Coral Springs in Broward County, graduated May 1, having majored in international studies and philosophy. Friends say he had planned to take a year off to do volunteer work and prepare to apply to law school. He hoped to pursue a career in corporate law.

"He was an exceptional student," said Lakdawala's advisor, associate professor of philosophy Alex Levine.

Lakdawala also is well-known at USF for helping organize large-scale volunteer projects. Over spring break he traveled to South Carolina to volunteer as a tutor at a home for abused, neglected and troubled boys.

"The trip was about friendship, love and being a role model," Lakdawala wrote in an online recommendation for the spring break trip. "It will change your life."

Lakdawala left for Costa Rica on May 8 for a two-week trip organized through USF's Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement. The group included 14 students or recent graduates, two USF staff members and a representative of International Volunteer HQ, a group based in New Zealand that organizes such trips.

During the first part of the trip, the group visited the capital, San Jose, where they toured the city and volunteered at an orphanage.

In a phone call to friend Maleka Sajwani on Friday, Lakdawala described how he enjoyed playing games with the orphans even though he knew little Spanish, she said. He marveled at the beauty of the country's rain forests and volcanoes. And he looked forward to going to the coastal city of Matapalo to work with a Costa Rican biologist studying the nesting habits of sea turtles.

On Saturday, the group finished its morning session and had a two-hour break when Lakdawala and others decided to go swimming, said associate vice president for student affairs Tracy Tyree.

"Everything just happened in the blink of an eye," said Sajwani, 21, a recent USF graduate who didn't make the trip because of a passport problem.

The swimmers had been able to stand up, but a current swept them into water over their heads, Sajwani said. Lakdawala was a good swimmer, but the group couldn't find him when they reached shore. A storm made the initial search difficult, she said.

Monday night, about 10 students returned to Tampa International Airport and came off the plane in tears, said USF spokesman Michael Hoad. Genshaft hugged each student, saying "We're so glad you're back. We care about you."

Then Genshaft and other top administrators put their arms around students and ushered them to a meeting room, where relatives and grief counselors were waiting to talk to them about the grieving process and the resources the university had available to them.

"People were crying the whole way over on the tram," Hoad said. "That's why we had the grief counselors here."

Few students felt composed enough to talk to reporters, he said.

"It's a tragedy to USF, the group and the community," grad student Anna Whittington, 23, said as she walked out of the airport. "Our hearts go out to the family."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Friends hold out hope for USF grad 05/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 18, 2009 11:49pm]

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