Faces of 2014 Graduates: Hard Work and Strong Support

Mandy Alvarez's path to graduating summa cum laude in nursing didn't follow a direct route. But the journey—and the people who've walked it with her—have made the destination that much sweeter.

Mandy describes her early childhood as a bit nomadic, and reflects that her wealth was in the large family and people around her rather than in monetary terms.

"My grandfather was a sheep shearer and I recall most of the men in the family would travel to southern Colorado to shear sheep or were employed at the meat packing plant in Greeley. I remember my grandmother having worked as a motel maid at one point," she says, adding, "We definitely lived in poverty, although I will say I really just recall feeling that I was well-loved."

Perhaps it was that early immersion in her family's love that carried her through the challenges she faced. She was always an A-student—until about seventh grade. It was then, she said, that she "started to sort of lose her way." She left school in eighth grade. At 16, she became pregnant with daughter Jorey. She earned her GED, but set academics aside, committed to being a mom. She and Jorey's dad—whom she describes as a fantastic father—eventually separated, and they worked hard to minimize the negative impact of their separation on Jorey. "I have always felt extremely proud of our cooperation and success in that commitment."

She worked evenings at a restaurant so that she could be with her daughter during the day, and she worked for the same company for the next 15 years. In that time, she also welcomed daughter Matilda (now 9) and son Harrison (now 6). "Their father has really been just a huge support," adding, "All three of my children are brilliant readers, excellent students and beautiful humans, each in their own unique ways."

Because of her deep commitment to her children, her decision to go back to school and pursue a degree in nursing was challenging. "Balancing my time and energy between my commitment to being the kind of parent I want to be and my desire to be an exceptional student has been the hardest part," she says.

Mandy describes her daughter Jorey, now a student at UNC in theatre design and technology, as her "nicest cheerleader," offering moral support and reminding her mom of her potential.

Her younger daughter is also a big supporter. "Matilda and I often compare notes on the grades we earn and exchange good luck notes on days we have tests. She's very sure her notes that I keep in my pocket are a big part of my good grades."

All three of her children recognize the results of her hard work, and Mandy is proud of her academic success.

"The degree and the Latin Honors have become a great source of pride and something of a point to prove to myself after having dropped out at such an early age," she says.

The path from the point when she left school, to walking across the stage at graduation, has been a challenge, but it's not one she's regretted.

"Probably the greatest challenge to pursuing this degree was finding courage to take the leap of faith to leave a job I was good at and that paid well. I had a life that I was fairly comfortable in. Giving up those things to pursue this inspired idea for a major life change was not easy. But once I took the very first step toward it I never once looked back for even a second," Mandy says.