Already a survivor many times over, Natalie Alvarez had no doubt that she would finish school when she enrolled at Palm Beach Atlantic University as an adult student in 2005.
Years earlier, she had survived a horrific car crash caused by a drunk driver. Later, doctors discovered a tumor in her brain, which had to be removed surgically.
After making a full recovery and establishing a successful career in the banking industry, the Palm Springs resident came to PBA to earn her bachelor’s degree in organizational management.
What she hadn’t counted on, however, was being displaced from her job of more than 20 years in 2006. Nor was she prepared for the breast cancer diagnosis she received shortly after starting a new job in 2008.
“It got to a point where I didn’t think I was going to finish school,” recalls Alvarez, who has undergone 26 surgeries to date, including a lumpectomy. “I did it because I made a commitment and I started it. I’m so thankful that I got it done.”
Not only did Alvarez complete her degree this year — six years after she started — she has been named the Outstanding Graduate of PBA’s MacArthur School of Leadership for the fall semester. She will be recognized during the University’s commencement ceremony on Saturday.
Her resilience left a lasting impression on her professors. “To me, she is not just a survivor, but a winner,” said Audy Johnston, assistant professor of leadership and management.
Carl Donner, assistant professor English and writing, described Alvarez as an excellent student who was both a “leader in class and in the community.”
For the past two years, Alvarez has worked at Regent Bank, where she manages the Palm Beach office. Along with her twin sister, Gina Sabean, she has been active on the University’s committee that organizes the annual Alumnae Afternoon Tea, an event that raises money for scholarships. Alvarez presently serves as chair of the committee.
Her current and past community involvements include the March of Dimes, American Heart Association, Arthritis Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, organizations for which she has repeatedly been a top fund-raiser. She also volunteered on a bowl-a-thon for Junior Achievement, and she is now the committee chair for the Executive Women of the Palm Beaches’ holiday basket auction.
As a breast cancer survivor, she has been involved in the Susan G. Komen South Florida’s Race for the Cure with her team, known as the “Survivor Striders.” Her latest cause has been a homeless family that she has been assisting to get back on their feet.
Alvarez said she began raising money for the March of Dimes in the early 1990s by asking her banking customers to donate. “I just saw that all you had to do is ask, and the worst they can say is no,” she said.
Not everyone is in a position to give financially, she said. “My way of giving back was donating my time.”
Alvarez said her husband of 19 years, Rafael Alvarez, has supported her throughout her journey. The couple has two sons, Rafael Jr. and Christopher. The Alvarez family has been active in the congregations at St. Luke Catholic Church and First Baptist Church of Hypoluxo.
Looking back, Alvarez is thankful for everything she has endured. “Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I’m sure everything I’ve gone through has made me the person I am today.”