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Speaking With the Speaker: Q&A With 2024 Student Speaker Leah Hoeniges

Dog lover and foodie Leah Hoeniges, MPH, will serve as student speaker for RUSH University’s 52nd Commencement Ceremony. Hoeniges is a General Entry Master’s student from the College of Nursing class of 2024. At the ceremony, she will receive a Master of Science in Nursing.


Leah Hoeniges, MPH, wearing graduation regalia

As the first member of her family to attend college, Hoeniges majored in geography at Illinois State University and earned her Master of Public Health at the University of Illinois Chicago.

She spent some time in Haiti and Uganda working on data collection and analysis and mapping. While abroad, she decided that a career in nursing would allow her to help others and make a positive impact. That eventually led her to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing at RUSH.

Hoeniges has a passion for health equity and women’s health, especially racial disparities in maternal and cancer mortality rates in Chicago. She’s also grateful to have had opportunities to work on global health projects, both locally and around the world.

During her time at the university, Hoeniges has taught high school students about nursing, helped veterans through the Road Home Program, worked with the Medical Mobile Van, provided flu shots to health center employees and written for the RUSH Advocacy and Medical Policy student group’s newsletter, among many other activities and projects.

In 2023, she traveled with other students to the Dominican Republic as part of the RISE Global Health Initiative to work on homes in the Villa Verde community. She plans to return with RUSH in 2024, serving on a primary care team. She’s also the co-president of the Center for Excellence in Aging’s Student Core and works as a nursing assistant. 

We asked Hoeniges a few questions about herself, her time at the university and her advice for new students and fellow graduates.


"Through a lot of life experience and introspection, I’ve learned that my sensitive nature makes me perfect for a career in healthcare — I care deeply, full stop. ... To me, it’s so clear I was always meant to be a nurse. It’s who I am at my core."

A Q&A with RUSH University 2024 Commencement Student Speaker Leah Hoeniges

Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up and go to school before RUSH?

I grew up in Bloomington, Illinois, just a couple of hours south of Chicago living with my parents, my younger sister, Katie, and my angel of a grandmother. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so there was a steep learning curve when it came to figuring out how to navigate higher education. After many major changes, I eventually received my undergraduate degree in geography from Illinois State University — one of my dad’s proudest moments. And a few years later, I went back and received my Master of Public Health from UIC.

What made you want to pursue a career in healthcare?

Science and people have always been things I’ve loved. So really, a career in healthcare makes total sense. But the real story is I spent a lot of time in Haiti and some in Uganda in my 20s working on projects related to data collection/analysis and mapping. One day while I was in Haiti, I decided if I ever wanted to have any real impact in helping others, I needed to get my MPH and become a nurse. Those goals seemed so far away then, almost impossible, but I was determined. And here I am in the next few months having marked both complete!

Throughout my entire life, I’ve been told I’m "sensitive," and it usually carried a negative connotation. Through a lot of life experience and introspection, I’ve learned that my sensitive nature makes me perfect for a career in healthcare — I care deeply, full stop. I love meeting people, hearing their stories and what experiences made them who they are today. It’s common that I’m moved to tears — watery eyes to be more exact — nearly every day, be it from a song, a patient experience, the warm sun on my face, etc. And I don’t think that makes me “too sensitive” or “dramatic.” It makes me truly appreciative of being human and all that we bring, individually and collectively, to the table. To me, it’s so clear I was always meant to be a nurse. It’s who I am at my core.

Why did you choose RUSH?

When I visited RUSH in the fall of 2019 for an informational session, I just had the feeling and knew it was where I was supposed to be. Now, having been here for almost two years, I know it was the right decision. I feel supported in every way, not only by the College of Nursing faculty, but also through the amazing friendships I’ve built.

One of the many reasons I chose to attend RUSH University for my nursing education was their fundamental commitment to working alongside communities throughout Chicago. From the beginning of my time here, I threw myself into opportunities that allowed me to grow as a human and hopefully help others along the way. The College of Nursing faculty has supported me in everything I’ve attempted and accomplished thus far, and I’m very grateful.

Is there anything you’re particularly passionate about in healthcare?

I love learning, so I think I’m genuinely curious about nearly all topics and issues in healthcare. But if I had to choose a few, I would say I’m passionate about health equity and women’s health — specifically, working to reduce racial disparities that exist in maternal and cancer mortality rates, especially within our own communities here in Chicago.

I’ve always been deeply passionate about global health. I’ve been reading about global health topics since I was a kid and have had the opportunity to work on some global health projects, both here and abroad.

I am also extremely passionate about the social determinants of health and how they impact our patients each day. It’s so important to get to gain a full picture of who our patient is, not just what we see that day in the hospital or in their chart. Social determinants of health and the policies that affect them are something we should all build an interest in, and we should advocate for better policies because they affect every one of our patients and, ultimately, their health.

Did you get involved in any organizations at RUSH? Anything you’re most proud of or that you enjoyed the most?

So many! Too many? I have helped to develop curriculums and teach high school students about nursing as a career, passed out turkeys to veterans with the Road Home Program, helped “grade” health education materials with RUSH’s Correctional Health Initiative, packed harm reduction kits with RUSH’s Medical Mobile Van, given flu vaccines to RUSH employees and written for the RUSH Advocacy and Medical Policy student group’s newsletter.

I was selected as a RISE Global Health Initiative participant and traveled with other students to the Dominican Republic during spring break 2023 where we laid concrete flooring for six homes in the Villa Verde community. This February, I will hopefully again be traveling to the Dominican Republic with RUSH serving on a primary care team. I serve as the co-president of the Center for Excellence in Aging’s Student Core and work as a nursing assistant on 7N.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at RUSH?

This is tough because I have so many. If I had to choose, I think my top two would be traveling with RUSH Global Health’s RISE program to the Dominican Republic last February and helping deliver babies on my labor and delivery clinical rotation!

I also really loved working the flu vaccine clinic this past fall. I met so many people that day — all employees, so they all loved RUSH just as much as I do. In tiny, five-minute increments, I learned a little about each one of them and laughed a lot. I left the hospital that day with the biggest smile.

On a more personal level, coming to RUSH early in the morning is one of my favorite things, and it is inevitable I get teary eyed every time. I live in the South Loop, so for the 30 seconds I’m on 90/94, I can see the sun rising to the east, and then I drive around the curve to merge onto 290, and the Tower is right there, stunning as always. It's a constant reminder of how grateful I am to be here at this moment in my life — training to be a nurse at RUSH University Medical Center and probably the happiest I’ve ever been.

Do you have any interests or hobbies that aren’t related to healthcare?

Yes! I love food — cooking at home and very long, relaxed dinners out with friends. I enjoy reading for fun, especially historical fiction and human psychology books; fashion — fun fact, my original major in undergrad was fashion merchandising; traveling; and doing anything and everything outdoors when the sun is shining! I am also an avid college basketball fan.

I have a three-and-a-half-year-old goldendoodle named Sal, short for Salvadora, who I love spending as much time with as I can. She’s the goofiest, friendliest, mushiest best friend, and her favorite thing is to drape her 65-pound body over my lap while I study with my computer on top of her. Oh, and treats.

Do you have any advice for students who are just starting at RUSH?

Get your sleep! It can be hard to keep a good routine with our intense student schedules, but I am such an advocate for going to sleep early-ish and getting up early — or at least maintaining a solid sleep schedule.

I also think everyone should get involved at RUSH. There are so many opportunities and areas to join a cause you’re already passionate about, or dive into — or create — something new and grow.

Do you have any advice for your classmates as they graduate and pursue healthcare careers?

I believe it’s vital we, as healthcare providers, work to get to know and understand the people we interact with daily, remaining mindful of how much the tiny moments matter. Some exchanges may feel insignificant, but to each of our individual patients or those we work alongside each day, this might be their big moment.

Being able to find appreciation in each other’s stories, perspectives and unique human experiences helps us to build connections and ultimately reminds us of the reason we’re all here in the first place — to support, comfort and heal.