“Committing to the field of medicine is as much an emotional, economic and physical journey as it is an academic one,” says second-year UCI medical student Julia Tran, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, here in the Medical Education Simulation Center. Steve Zylius / UCI

Second-year UCI medical student Julia Tran was born 12 months after her family arrived in Westminster as refugees from the Vietnam War. Her parents and two older brothers were part of the first wave of U.S.-sponsored evacuations, which included military personnel such as Tran’s father, who was a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army.

Life in California was difficult. Before leaving Vietnam, the family had been stripped of their belongings through raids. Tran recalls how, when she was growing up, her parents depended on donations from their church to clothe her and her siblings and to furnish their apartment. Her father was a dishwasher, and her mother did nails and hair; they worked any odd jobs they were offered.

From these “humble beginnings,” as she puts it, Tran has evolved into a first-generation college student success story, one in which personal experiences fueled her drive to become a doctor. Fortunately, she had a deep desire to learn and excelled in academics.

The road to medical school

As an undergraduate at UCLA, Tran was interested in graphic design, and while she still loves it, she says, her parents’ declining health sparked her interest in the field of medicine. A firm believer in the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, Tran helped her parents adopt a more balanced diet and would go home on weekends to walk 4 miles with them.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, immunology & molecular genetics at UCLA, Tran began medical school at UCI in 2017. But with annual tuition and fees, plus living expenses, students often must obtain tens of thousands of dollars in loans each year – saddling them with crushing debt before they even begin their careers. And with her parents now retired, the cost of medical education falls solely on Tran.

To lessen her financial burden, she was named a Lieu Scholar in Medical Leadership, a designation that provides funding for parking, books and food – and allows Tran to take out fewer loans.

In 2015, Dr. David Lieu, who had earned an M.D. at UCI in 1979, and his family established the Lieu Scholars in Medical Leadership Endowment to assist talented, first-generation UCI medical students facing economic and other barriers. At more than $300,000, it’s one of the largest scholarship-focused gift the School of Medicine has ever received. In addition, Lieu serves as a mentor to those selected for the annual award.

Being named a Lieu Scholar in Medical Leadership – a designation that provides funding for parking, books and food – enables Tran to take out fewer loans to cover the cost of her medical education. Steve Zylius / UCI

“Private donors have become increasingly important in educating the next generation of doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers, businessmen and other professionals,” Lieu says. “Yesterday we were helped by the generosity of strangers who came before us. Today we are the strangers who must help those who come after us.”

The scholarship has benefited Tran both financially and psychologically. “Committing to the field of medicine is as much an emotional, economic and physical journey as it is an academic one,” she says. “This money is Dr. Lieu saying, ‘Hey, Julia, despite all the odds and setbacks you and your family have faced throughout the years, I believe in you. I believe that you are capable of fighting for your dreams and that you will one day make a wonderful doctor.’”

Giving back

Like Lieu, Tran is committed to “paying forward” the generosity shown to her and her family. She’s the patient advocacy and health education chair for the UCI student-run An Lành Free Clinic in Garden Grove, which provides no-cost healthcare to the underserved community.

And after becoming a doctor, she plans to dedicate her weekends to working in similar facilities.

Tran says she knows firsthand what it’s like to have nothing, and she hopes to transform lives just as hers was. “This scholarship has catalyzed my desire to help others who have also had financial hardships,” she says, “which is why I make it a priority to volunteer my spare time in free clinics and work with other disadvantaged communities while being in medical school.”