When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, many Americans, especially senior citizens, were faced with fear and uncertainty. But Leah Stednitz was moved to action.
“I have a passion and am driven to work with our aging population, especially the baby-boomer generation,” Leah said. “I love and respect them. They are mentors to me, and we have so much to learn from them as a society. I want to honor them for their contributions to society.”
A native of Springfield, Neb., Leah graduated from high school in 1999 and earned an associate degree in respiratory care from Metropolitan Community College. With her clinical experiences in the years since, she knew she could be helpful to those most vulnerable to the virus. However, she wanted to take her abilities to make an impact to the next level by earning her bachelor’s degree.
“I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon,” she said, “so I want to be a part of the solution to making life better and more socialized for the residents.”
For the last 17 years, Leah has lived all over the United States with her husband and three daughters. Leah married her high school sweetheart, and he attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha before joining the United States Air Force.
“I practiced respiratory therapy for several years, but with raising a family, being a single parent at times and moving every couple of years, I chose to put my career on hold and my family first,” she said. “All three of our daughters are now in school full time, and my husband can retire from the military in three years, so I have chosen to make myself a priority again and figure out what I want to do when I grow up.”
Leah had been putting her professional skills to use by volunteering with elderly citizens when the pandemic hit, and when that work was put on pause, she decided to become a full-time student and enrolled at UNO. She’s pursuing a multidisciplinary studies degree with emphases in health care administration, gerontology and respiratory care.
Of course, 2020 had to throw extra challenges her way. She simultaneously had to become a homeschooling teacher to her two youngest daughters — teaching fourth grade and kindergarten — and later in the year, her family battled COVID-19. Throughout it all, Leah managed to keep up with her classes and maintain a 4.0 GPA.
Doing all of this on one income was no cakewalk either, so when Leah learned that she was one of 2020’s recipients of the UNO Fund scholarship, she was beyond thrilled.
“I remember calling my husband on the phone and jumping for joy,” she said. “I was so excited and humbled that it brought tears to my eyes.”
While there are many scholarships at UNO, the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships is the only one that sees hundreds of alumni and supporters come together to make gifts — last year as low as $5 and as high as $5,000 — to give directly back to students. The scholarship will provide financial assistance for Leah through her expected graduation in December 2021.
“I am proud to be a part of UNO and have enjoyed my experience,” she said. “I will be the first in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
“I was honored and truly appreciative to receive this scholarship; it helped ease the financial burden of being a one-income family, the costs of raising three daughters and, of course, not having to live on as tight of a budget. This scholarship brought a peace of mind to help ease the guilt of my financial burden with my student tuition to complete my degree. I also have been able to spend more time with my family in the evenings, being an active mom that they need and deserve. I can designate my daytime hours while they are at school to working out, doing schoolwork, volunteering and giving back to the community.”
Leah’s daughters are back in school now, and she has been able to resume her volunteer work, serving two days a week at Hillcrest Health Services in Bellevue, working with hospice patients. With graduation coming soon, she has ambitious plans for her degree and her experiences working with older populations.
“I may apply for a master’s program,” she mused, “but I know 100% that I want to work with the aging population. I would love to take this degree and run a long-term care facility here in the Omaha metro. I want to take my knowledge and passion to truly honor and celebrate our senior citizens. I feel that I can bring the younger tech-savvy groove of society and apply it to our long-term care facilities to help them stay socialized and connected with the outside world. Especially during these tragic times, our geriatric populations have been the most impacted by COVID-19.”
Leah especially wanted to thank the donors who have enabled her to pursue her call to service and to achieve her dream of a UNO bachelor’s degree.
“Thank you so much for your contribution to make the UNO Fund scholarship possible,” she said. “This scholarship has helped me further my education dream and helped make it a reality. It means a lot, especially for us nontraditional students who don’t get as many opportunities for scholarships as high school seniors. I truly appreciate the generosity and compassion that you have for donating to help fund scholarships for other UNO students.”