When Marlen Kanagui first came to UCI, she looked around and wondered why there were so few Latino students.

“I remember thinking, ‘Hey, there aren’t a lot of people like me. Why aren’t we here?’” she says.

Instead of accepting the status quo, Kanagui began working to change it. Because of her efforts to help Latino students to succeed academically – and her own impressive academic achievements – she’s been awarded the 2007 Lauds & Laurels for Student Achievement/Outstanding Undergraduate. (UCI Alumni Association will present the award Thursday, May 10, at the Hyatt Regency Irvine).

Kanagui, a senior majoring in cognitive psychology and sociology in the School of Social Sciences, has been active in numerous organizations that seek to increase high school and college graduation rates for Latinos, including the Santa Ana ENLACE (Engaging Latino Communities for Education) program, UCI’s Center for Educational Partnerships, and K-12 outreach programs such as Upward Bound, Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), Early Academic Outreach Program and the Saturday Academy in Mathematics. She’s currently president of the Latino/a Student Psychological Association at UCI, which assists minority undergraduates aspiring to enter the mental health field.

“Marlen’s passion for improving her community and dedication to the university is uncommon among her peers,” says Jeanett Castellanos ’94, lecturer in social sciences and Chicano/Latino studies and director of the Social Sciences Academic Resource Center. “Her academic record, research experience and community work put her in the top percentage of undergraduates at UCI.”

Kanagui understands the obstacles many Latinos face in going to college. Growing up in a modest farming town in the Central Valley, she was one of the few students in her high school to attend a university.

“We had a very high drop-out rate,” she says. “A lot of students were immigrants and migrant workers. Not many kids went on to a four-year university.”

Like her older brother, Kanagui enrolled in UCI, earning scholarships from the UCI Alumni Association, the HSF (Hispanic Scholarship Fund)/Mazda Foundation and Governor’s ScholarShare Program. Her academic research has focused on the study of Latinas’ adjustments to college and attitudes toward counseling, along with their parents’ attitudes toward college.

“A lot of kids who are thinking about college ask me what it’s like to move away from home,” she says. “I started to realize the need to share my experience with them.”

With her recent acceptance to the University of Missouri-Columbia’s counseling psychology program, she hopes to work on initiatives that increase mental health services in minority communities.

“I want to remain active in the community as a professor and practitioner,” she says. “A lot of my mentors are well-rounded leaders. They’ve set a wonderful example. They’ve taught me to give back any way that you can.”