A fierce passion is packed within the petite, barely more than 5-foot frame of Adrianna Alexandrian, known to her friends as “Annie” — an incredibly focused UC Santa Barbara double major whose maturity level is well beyond her 23 years.

As a first-generation college student who grew up in Santa Barbara, Alexandrian earns good grades, is heavily involved in campus activities and is actively pursuing a post-graduate career in the field of public health policy, with an emphasis on reducing women’s health disparities in low-income communities of color.

That incredible focus has earned her the Thomas More Storke Award for Excellence, an honor given to the top graduate for outstanding scholarship and extraordinary service to the university, its students, and the community.

But what drives the honors student — why she’s so personally invested in women’s health — will make it that much harder when she receives the award and her diploma at graduation on June 16.

While in her first years at UCSB, Alexandrian lost both her mother and her older sister to preventable health issues, ones that might have been caught if her low-income, multi-racial family had health insurance or better knowledge of their medical history.

Her mother died from a heart attack caused by a pinched nerve, and her sister from a blood clot and complications with hormonal birth control.

“I feel like she didn’t have access to all the services,” Alexandrian said of her mother. “You only know so much.”

Alexandrian, a feminist studies and English major, further fueled her passion for the subject with findings from her feminist studies project, “Restricted Choices: Childbirth Options for Low-Income Women in Santa Barbara County.”

“I found that there’s a disconnect between what’s considered the most important aspect” of health history, said Alexandrian, her eyes tearing slightly as she remembered the support from those at UCSB and at home during her emotional struggle.

“I just had to do it for my mom,” she said.

Alexandrian said she was able to stay in school in spite of personal tragedy because of supportive friends and mentors, and because the GATE Millennium Scholarship she received after graduating from San Marcos High School paid for all her schooling.

She has stuck to large course loads and sitting in the front of every classroom and lecture hall, mostly due to the 80-percent hearing loss in her left ear and a portion in her right she has had since birth.

“I’m lucky,” Alexandrian said. “It’s been really hard for people to stay in school. College isn’t affordable anymore.”

Alexandrian has made the most of her college experience, having served as a commissioner of public health and safety for UCSB’s Associated Students Office of the President, a programming assistant for the Women, Gender, & Sexual Equity Department, and as co-chairwoman and external affairs coordinator of the Associated Students Food Bank — helping secure necessary funding to sustain the program.

She has also volunteered as a client advocate for Domestic Violence Solutions, a Santa Barbara shelter for women and children, and has enjoyed participating in a poetry group called WORD (Women of Color Revolutionary Dialogue).

Alexandrian, who will attend the Master of Public Health program at UC Berkeley this fall, said graduating next Sunday will be a “surreal” and exciting experience.

Her ceremony will be the final of UCSB’s eight graduation commencements, which kicked off June 9.

And although she’d love to share the day with her mother and sister, she will enjoy celebrating with her father, one of two brothers and other family.

“That will be good,” she said, taking a meaningful pause. “It’s very hard. I’m proud of myself, but it’s really hard.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at gpotthoff@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.