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UCI Student Receives 2020 Strauss Scholarship

UCI junior and cognitive sciences major Karishma Muthukumar has received the 2020 Strauss Scholarship. Provided by the Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship Foundation in honor of Newport Beach’s Don Strauss, the scholarship allocated Muthukumar a sum of $15,000 for her service project, The Patient Project.

The Patient Project is meant to offer people in waiting rooms support and hope through conversation, mindfulness, and arts and crafts.

“One of the moments that really sparked my attention was when I was a volunteer at a brain injury center and there was a patient who held my hand and she said, ‘Thank you, thank you for being here,’” Muthukumar said. “That really inspired me, also because the whole setup was just a conversation where we would play games and there would be organized activities, so I wasn’t expecting to make such a big impact, but to actually have that kind of response is really memorable.”

According to Muthukumar, the scholarship should enable her to expand upon what she began as a pilot program under the Dalai Lama Scholarship in 2019 to 2020. In addition to helping her start her project, the Dalai Lama Scholarship influenced the types of activities Muthukumar decided to implement in her program through its emphasis on mindfulness.

It also provided Muthukumar with a community where she found mentors who helped provide perspective on the work that she was doing. In the past year, Muthukumar focused on gathering interested members for her project, establishing partnerships with various departments at UCI and helping members get badged so that they could volunteer in a medical setting. 

With the Strauss Scholarship, Muthumukar expects the funding to benefit her project by allowing her to create partnering organizations at other campuses, acquire more activity materials and support volunteers. With the onset of COVID-19, however, Muthukumar has also had to readjust her visions for the program.

“We’re considering a new pilot program, potentially a virtual conversational care that really holds the same principles and the same goals in mind, especially because conversational care is even more relevant in today’s situation, but obviously the format would be different,” she said.

In transitioning to an online format, Muthukumar has reached out to Children’s Hospital of Orange County and the UCI Medical Center in hopes of partnering. While moving online would present a barrier to in-person communication, one benefit she sees in moving to virtual care is the ability to expand the program geographically.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Muthukumar had plans to work with CHOC departments, such as cardiology and neurology, and she is still hoping to resume those partnerships when possible. While her project has had some unexpected challenges, Muthukumar is looking forward to continuing to develop The Patient Project and making an impact.

“Really my short-term or my main goal is just to really impact one person because that one person could end up changing another person’s life,” she said. “… As a long-term goal we would hope to restructure or redesign the waiting room experience not as a place that is alienated and a place of anxiety and a place of uncertainty, but rather a place of community, and hope and support.”

The Patient Project is currently a campus organization at UCI thanks to the help of biological sciences students Meenakshi Chandrasekaran and Caitlin Yee, who served as signers, and the entire Patient Project team. The organization is also looking to grow its team. Anyone interested in joining or learning more about the project can do so through  The Patient Project website.

Muthukumar also expressed thanks to all her mentors, including but not limited to Professor Jayne Lewis, Sumita Furlong and Chief of Staff Edgar Dormitorio.

Christina Acevedo is a Staff Writer. She can be reached at acevedc2@uci.edu.