Ayoola Kellar-Carleton

The Arkansas Business Publishing Group released a list of the top 40 professionals in the US state under the age of 40 in June. They were selected based on the impact they have made on their company or community and their potential for becoming a leader in business or politics during the next decade.

A Trinidadian–Ayoola Kellar-Carleton, 37, Associate Director of Research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) was among the distinguished group.

She oversees the diabetes prevention research programme of the Community Health & Research Office at UAMS and she has always been interested in doing participatory research work.

Last year Kellar-Carleton led the establishment of Arkansas’ only fully trilingual (Spanish, English, Marshallese) COVID-19 contact tracing centre.

Part of the comprehensive approach, besides contact tracing, was also to provide navigation services to facilitate people who had trouble accessing groceries, food, rent assistance and letters for work exemption.

A former student of Bishop Anstey High School and Diamond Vale Government Primary, Kellar-Carleton grew up in Diego Martin, the last of four children to Caryl and Nneka Kellar. In 2011, she married Nathan Carleton, who she met while teaching in Namibia. Nathan serves as a Director of Communications at Walmart Inc in Arkansas, where they live with their two children, Tai, nine and Priya, four.

In her spare time, Kellar-Carleton and her family explore the waterfalls and hiking trails in Arkansas.

Speaking to the Sunday Guardian she said, “I wasn’t the perfect student in high school. When I finished Secondary School in 2001, I was truly unsure what life would bring.

“One principal actually told me that I wouldn’t amount to much in life. I also did not go directly to university after graduating, because I was still deciding what was next for me.

“However, my family always believed in me and encouraged me to follow my dreams. In 2003 my grandmother Eileen Davis handed me an application to CUNY (City University of New York) Hunter College, and said ‘Colin Powell went there!’

“I applied and was accepted, and I left Trinidad determined to excel and take advantage of every opportunity afforded me.”

She said being a Trinidadian and leaving the beautiful island, the lifestyle and moving to the US to assimilate and move on to a higher education structure came with its own challenges.

Kellar-Carleton credits having a strong sense of goals and what you would like to achieve, then combining that with maximising other opportunities that may come your way.

She advised having a mindset of what can you learn, take from this and grow, then use that to propel you to the next step of what you need to achieve and to work on. She always approached life and challenges with what is now called a growth mindset, which refers to the belief that talents are malleable by whatever means.

Kellar-Carleton enrolled at Hunter College in 2004, starting a nearly two-decade educational and professional journey that included a semester in Bangalore, India, a year teaching English in the African nation of Namibia, through the Harvard-affiliate WorldTeach in 2009, a Master’s programme at Columbia University, and then a move from New York City to Arkansas.

She also went to graduate school focusing on strategic planning and finance to be able to work with under-represented communities in the Caribbean.

Kellar-Carleton believes a lot in education, her time as a researcher and teacher in Namibia showed her first-hand how education overlapped with health, how poor health, not enough food impacted educational performance, which fuelled her passion to have a larger contribution in the field.

She then worked for the Ford Foundation as a programme analyst for their higher education portfolio to improve access to higher education for communities in the Andean Region and Southern Cone such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Colombia.

Kellar-Carleton said that the initiative also had operations in the US, South Africa, Egypt and China.

During her time at the Ford Foundation, she was working on this programme in various countries meeting impact assessments, collective impact theory, and managed strategic planning for that portfolio.

Caryl Kellar, her father, said that at one point in time he was of the opinion that she didn’t work as hard as her siblings, Ayanna, a Juris Doctor and Abenaa, a medical doctor to achieve her academic results.

Chuckling, he revealed that they put in ‘endless hours’ of studying, the perception was she did not. However, when their results came, she did better than them, and was a natural.

His mother called Kellar-Carleton, the youngest child, the brightest.

Kellar-Carleton told her father that she studied hard and showed him an article that stated Ivy Leaguers (her sister Ayanna and her went to Columbia University and were also Ivy Leaguers) put in 14-16 hours a day studying. Keller was shocked to learn that, he exclaimed with a laugh.