Making History Today: Alesia Coe

I don't view diversity and inclusion as an option. If leaders are as diverse as those we lead and the patients and communities that we serve, we're more likely to be able to connect and identify with that community. We're then in a better position to meet their needs, improve their experiences, and positively impact their health outcomes.

Modeling for young Black men and women who currently practice in health care and those who aspire to do so is important to me. I have had outstanding mentors that did the same for me throughout my career. They have generously and selflessly shared their time and knowledge. And it has played a key role in my success. Paying it forward is a privilege.

A pivotal moment in Alesia Coe’s life happened in the University of Chicago Medicine’s emergency room when she was in high school.

Coe was volunteering as a hospital candy striper, doing small tasks around the ER. She loved helping people and was thinking about becoming a pediatrician. But as she worked, Coe noticed the nurses, not the doctors, spent the most time with patients. One day, a young man — scared, in pain and alone — was brought into the ER. He asked Coe to hold his hand. She did.

“I remember the nurses saying to me, ‘You are really helping him stay calm! It’s making a big difference,’” said Coe, DNP, RN, NE-BC. “I have never forgotten that moment. I knew that day I wanted to be a nurse.”

Coe became not just a registered nurse, but an inspiration. She earned three nursing degrees, including a doctorate, and spent much of her career as a leader in the federal and state healthcare systems. Today, she is one of UChicago Medicine’s top nursing executives.

As Associate Chief Nursing Officer & Executive Director for Adult Inpatient Hospitals, Coe is responsible for more than 1,500 adult inpatient nursing staff and their operations. In November 2021, her work earned her the prestigious Carol Emmott Fellowship, awarded to exceptional women leaders in health.

“So many aspects of her as a person make her a trailblazer,” said her supervisor, Emily Chase, PhD, RN, NE-BC, FACHE, Senior Vice President for Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer. “People look up to her and see her as an amazing leader. With her resume, she could work anywhere. She chose us. She joined UChicago Medicine in 2018 because she wanted to give back to the South Side community where she grew up.”

Just as she did in her candy striper days, Coe continues to give people a hand. She actively helps women and people of color develop their nursing careers through leadership, mentoring and coaching programs, both formal and informal. Most importantly, she serves as a role model demonstrating what’s possible to young people and members of marginalized communities.

“I want them to see me and think, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’” Coe said. “I want others to know that you can accomplish your goals and aspirations even if you live in an underserved community. It will require hard work, confidence and support from family or those who give back to others.”

She regularly sets aside time to coach women about their careers, help them with their resumes and job interview techniques, share her experiences and give constructive feedback to prepare them for leadership roles.

“I can see how women, especially young girls, might not view a healthcare leadership career as a possibility if they don’t see more minorities and people of color in those roles. That’s one of the reasons I strive to be a role model for them. It’s one of the greatest things I can do to help them,” she said.

She also uses her credibility to help educate the Black community about the importance of medical care and preventive tests, to correct misconceptions and to establish trust.

Coe’s most passionate about paying forward the mentorship she has received throughout her career.

“I hope to leave a legacy that inspires people to say, ‘Alesia, when I saw you working, I saw what leadership looked like. You didn’t just talk about it. You lived it with each interaction. You were always fair. You modeled what effective leaders do. You showed us what credibility as a leader means and the high level of integrity that’s required,’” she said. “Without those characteristics, people who think they’re leaders, they’re not leading at all.”