Alabama Days to Arabian Nights: One Graduate’s Journey to the Palace


Growing up in Glencoe, Alabama, Leah Bryn Thornhill had no idea that life would take her to a Saudi Arabian Palace. 

After graduating from JSU in 2003 with a BS in nursing, she found herself working as a nurse at a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. One individual noticed that she was independent, strong-willed and a critical thinker and invited her to work in the palace. Today, she is a registered nurse for the King of Saudi Arabia and his immediate family members. Her job has afforded her the opportunity to travel and meet two US presidents, a Pope, the Queen of England, and many more interesting faces. 

While across the globe, Thornhill is pursing a Master’s of Science in Nursing from JSU, concentrating in community health. While both of her parents were college graduates, she is the first in her family to go on to graduate school. 

“It’s funny,” Thornhill said. “I never knew growing up I actually had a choice of not attending college.” 

In addition to juggling the duties of being a nurse to a royal family and a graduate student, Thornhill is also mother to three children – ages 10, 12 and 14 – with one on the way. Her husband, Dr. Jose DeFeo, also works at the palace as a veterinarian for racehorses.

Dr. Rebecca Peinhardt, professor and director of graduate nursing programs at JSU, has had the opportunity to frequently interact with Thornhill over the past year of her graduate studies, keeping up-to-date on Thornhill’s progress and encouraging her along her journey. 

“Our MSN programs are offered totally online,” Peinhardt explains. “All of our MSN students take their classes online, but participate in advanced clinical practice as a nurse in the city or area where they live. In Leah's case, that is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She has shared that she has a heart for women's health and children's health and a desire to work to improve health care education and prevention practices in the kingdom. She wants to learn advanced nursing skills to plan community programs to expand and improve best practices in the health care systems where she lives.” 

As JSU’s MSN program is entirely online, its students are located across the world – a fact Peinhardt keeps in mind when interacting with all of her students, including Thornhill. 

“She is halfway around the world from JSU, living and working in a culture that is very different from our Southern culture,” Peinhardt said. “I am mindful to not only respect Leah as a student, but also of the fact that she is living and studying in an area of the world which is very different from the residential JSU community here.”

Thornhill exuberantly affirms that she loves her job. 

“I chose nursing because I always knew I wanted to practice and be in the medical profession,” Thornhill said. “I chose nursing because it's such an open field for growth and change in many directions and you can experience many things in nursing. When you find what you love, the sky is the limit.”

As with all her graduate students, Peinhardt’s hope for Thornhill is that she continue to find professional success. “She has a heart for nursing and a heart for the Saudi people,” said Peinhardt. “She is an ambassador for community health, prevention of disease, improvements in health care, and lastly for JSU. I appreciate Leah and the difference she is making and will make in the future. She embodies a global health outreach. The JSU College of Nursing is now a part of that global initiative!” 

Interested to see where a nursing degree could take you? Learn more about JSU’s undergraduate and graduate nursing programs at