Advancing Her Peers’ Careers

Women poses in nursing jacket.
Mary Kate Leonard ('20)

February 26, 2021
Sydney Bernardo ('22)

First, Mary Cate Leonard (’20) was declined financial aid for nurse practitioner school. Then, her daughter joined the family early, and her husband was injured in an accident, leaving the young family with the new expenses of parenting and medical bills. She was forced to quit her job as a registered nurse to accommodate for the rigorous number of clinical hours needed to complete the nurse practitioner program, all of which were unpaid. 

She looked for options, trying to find any scholarship she could get her hands on. 

“I reached out to every faculty member that I knew to see what resources there were for students who were like me, who were really just hanging on by a thread,” Leonard said. “There was nothing.”
Many scholarships had Leonard competing nationwide against thousands of applicants. Even the local options were saturated by the large health care programs in Spokane. 

Finally, Leonard put her tuition on her credit card. Outrageous monthly payments made clear that though it was the only option, it was not sustainable. 

Leonard reached out again. Met with the same answers, faculty members shared their own past struggles that mirrored hers. Leonard and her husband made the difficult decision to sell their house and move in with Leonard’s parents. She used some of the proceeds to pay off tuition and credit card debt. With the rest, she decided to help others. She developed a nonprofit called Embrace, created to provide scholarships for other struggling nursing students. 

Passion and determination are enough to start a nonprofit, but they’re not enough to sustain one, Leonard admits. “I can put a human back together and I can save lives, but I don’t know how to run a business.” 

Program Manager for the School of Nursing and Human Physiology, Gena Hoxha (’14), heard Leonard’s story and wanted to help. 

“There’s a lot of preconceived notions that nurses make a lot of money and have a lot of earning power,” Hoxha said. “We have this profile about nurses being really well-off, not having these kinds of issues, and it completely shifted that profile.”
“There’s a lot of preconceived notions that nurses make a lot of money and have a lot of earning power,” Hoxha said. “We have this profile about nurses being really well-off, not having these kinds of issues, and it completely shifted that profile.”
In Fall 2020, Hoxha and her husband, Cole Kelly (‘14), co-taught a class called Senior Incubation through the Hogan Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, in which students learn and apply leadership skills that help them in future endeavors, from starting their own business to higher education. 

Traditionally in Senior Incubation, students develop four or five business ideas, but during the fall semester, Hoxha and Kelly wanted to make the class more unique and community oriented by picking one community client to offer their student talent. They chose Leonard, and divided students into four teams. 

Acting as a consulting company, the students were to look at the business holistically and set up the organization for success. Some focused on marketing and fundraising, others looked after finances, or operations and sustainability. Just like Leonard, the students first had to learn the basics. 

“They didn’t know the difference between a nurse and a nurse practitioner, so that was our first class,” Hoxha said. 

The faculty were worried that Embrace might not excite all their students, but those fears subsided after the first class. The students acted as content experts and learning architects, teaching Leonard the basics through the semester. They explained the importance of a bookkeeping system, what’s needed for taxes, and drafted communication plans to donors. For their final, they presented their work to Leonard and a board member. 

“It didn’t feel like a class, it legitimately felt like a professional meeting,” Hoxha said. The students leave with a portfolio of work they’ve done to further a local business, and Leonard leaves with all the tools for a successful nonprofit. 

“It turned an idea into a true organization,” Leonard said. “They’ve worked with someone who knows zero about running a business and turned this into something that is going to make a big impact.” Leonard hopes to eventually expand Embrace to help nursing students nationwide. She graduated last fall and is now running Embrace, while practicing as a women’s health provider. 


As of Feb. 4, 2020, Embrace has awarded two scholarships and is launching its mentorship program to connect nursing practitioner students with current practicing nurse practitioners. 
  • Academics
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