Kindness and compassion have been motivating factors for Elisa Tran, a senior in social policy & public service, and Lara Nguyen, a senior in international studies and public health policy, who have set out to make a positive impact at UCI.

As the campus’s 2018-19 Dalai Lama Scholars, they are leading this year’s third annual OC Make-a-thon, an intensive three-day event that brings together students from multiple disciplines – many of them in engineering – to develop products for people living with disabilities.

Tran and Nguyen are receiving support from UCI’s XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship and a Barnes & Noble College Scholarship to “make” it happen.

“Both scholarship committees were extremely impressed with the vision and compassion demonstrated by Elisa and Lara. We are eager to see innovative solutions created through the OC Make-a-thon for ‘differently abled’ members of our community,” says Karina Hamilton, director of scholarships and special projects in UCI’s Student Affairs office.

Participants in the 2019 event will work on projects ranging from a campus navigation app for visually impaired students to more accessible bathroom doors and adaptive gardening.

It’s a labor of love for Tran. “My mom faces many challenges common to those who have had strokes, such as navigating daily activities with one arm,” she says. “This affects her ability to put on her jacket, button her jeans, cook and clean.”

Tran brought her mother to the inaugural 2017 OC Make-a-thon and paired her up with a team who worked on a cane allowing her to get up on her own if she fell and also zip up her jacket without help.

“I was inspired to be a part of the OC Make-a-thon after working at a camp for people with disabilities for three years,” Nguyen says. “I met some of the most resilient individuals who tackled structural barriers with such grace and happiness. However, I saw the injustice in that simple daily tasks such as swimming, eating or walking on sidewalks became dangerous undertakings that required additional assistance.

“The campers were very individualistic and brave in that they wanted to accomplish things on their own but sometimes couldn’t because of the lack of tools for their disability. The OC Make-a-thon will bridge the discrepancy and misunderstanding between the abled and disabled communities.”

She and Tran have even partnered with Anaheim’s H.O.P.E Center, which offers mental health services, because their goal is to also aid people with psychological impairments. They have visited the center twice and met with staff who helped identify key needs to inspire projects at the OC Make-a-thon.

Understanding the challenges confronting those with disabilities lets event participants take human-centered approaches to creating useful technology and practical products. In addition, the OC Make-a-thon gives students an opportunity to translate academic knowledge into real-life solutions.

“While all of the projects never cease to amaze me, I think one of the most impactful for me was when a team developed a walking cane for blind individuals that had motion detectors attached to the end in order to help them navigate through narrow hallways,” Nguyen says. “One of the team members had a close relative who is blind. Thus the passion and determination to really see the problem from another perspective and find an answer came from genuine intentions and heart. It was truly an incredible project to watch evolve.”

The 2019 OC Make-a-thon will be held the second weekend of April in UCI Applied Innovation’s Cove facilities. (For more information, contact Tran or Nguyen at

“We are honored to feature this event,” says Kate Klimow, chief administrative officer and director of external relations at UCI Applied Innovation. “One of our objectives is to bring together the UCI community to help advance campus innovation, entrepreneurship and partnerships for the greater good of the wider community. This event will do exactly that.”

- Daisy Murguia, UCI
- photo by Steve Zylius



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