Life of LeAnn

Life of LeAnn Carlton

Retiring after decades of service to KCU's students, LeAnn Carlton reflects on a career that gave her purpose.

By Bret Silvis

“I have so many memories, and I know we can’t get to all of them,” said LeAnn Carlton, who recently retired as KCU’s assistant dean of academic affairs, “But, I’m pretty sure you can only print some of them.”

She isn’t wrong. As someone who spent two decades with her finger on the pulse of the KCU student experience, Carlton has stories to tell. It’s an anthology of the pride found in the student successes aided by her guidance; laughter from countless inside jokes that she shared with those closest to her; and, for some, sorrow from moments of loss when Carlton was a trusted counselor, friend and provider.

When asked about Carlton, some will tell you that she is like Mary Poppins, but that her bag is an invisible, never-ending reserve of student information that she pulls from when needed. The secret, of course, isn’t magic–it’s her unprecedented dedication to the students for which she so deeply cares.

“LeAnn would personally read every single incoming student’s application so that she knew their background and how to be there for each one,” said Rick Winslow, PhD, KCU vice provost for student and enrollment services. “Later, when she would meet the students at orientation or when they needed her guidance months into their first year, LeAnn would draw on these personal facts about a student’s grandparent or how they loved cats or that they've already overcome some pretty big obstacles in their life; it made the students realize that they were with someone who really cared about them.”

Others might instead describe her like a screwdriver. If Carlton witnessed any fragment of instability in a student’s life, she could always be relied upon to tighten up the loose parts with a few quick turns of a skilled hand to set the student back up on a firm foundation of support.

“During boards after my second year, I would often study outside on the picnic tables to get some fresh air, especially when I was overly stressed,” Brian Geraghty, DO (COM ’18), remembered. “If LeAnn was walking through campus she would always stop by, and after a few minutes with her I would be laughing harder than ever while she told me some crazy story. She always knows how to get me to let go of the stress. Then, when I was ready, she would buy me cup of coffee to get me through the rest of the long studying day.”

There are many more that would describe her as a mother figure, and perhaps that is the concept that encompasses all the others. All of Carlton's traits seem to roll up into this idea of a constant provider in service to the students of KCU. Whether through making a point to know their interests, talking through their struggles, providing comedic relief or buying them coffee, Carlton's mindset is centered on student wellness being rooted in keeping students happy and healthy.

"I would always tell the students that they can't sacrifice everything at once. You can trade sleep for studying one day or maybe skip a meal to practice techniques and you might get by for a while; but, you can't give up everything. Maybe you can sacrifice one thing for a little while, but not more than that," Carlton said. "If you give up more, then you're essentially giving up who you are and what keeps you going. Even in stressful times, you need that stability."

It's a lesson that she originally learned from her own mother when she was young, and she passed it along to every student who needed the same reminder. More often than not this reminder came by way of food.

"It's the first thing they give up," she said, "They skip meals because they think there isn't enough time in the day to fit it in, or they feel so much stress that their appetite disappears. So, most of my meetings with students came down to me starting off with 'Okay, let's get something to eat and then we'll talk'."

With a gift certificate to the cafeteria or coffee shop in hand, Carlton would often provide a meal for the student and would even sometimes send them with an extra one for dinner. "It was something I knew I could control. I couldn't make them sleep, or exercise, or maintain their spirituality, but I could make sure that they were fed."

Of course, Carlton’s impact isn’t only felt by the students she served since first stepping onto campus in 1996; in the years since, she focused KCU’s view on student services by essentially building the framework of the university's current student support resources from the ground up. Overseeing the departments of Admissions, Registrar, Financial Aid–and at one point even Score 1 for Health–along with student affairs, Carlton was continually immersed in the full array of student services. She was formative in many of KCU's accomplishments including: the growth and development of the Student Government Association (SGA); the creation of the university’s academic advising model; the expansion of student clubs to the more than 30 now available; the formation of learning enhancement; the implementation of counseling services; the first community service day and KCU's inaugural White Coating Ceremony; and the building of a dedicated team of student affairs staff who would carry on her impressive work.

“I started at KCU when I was 22,” said Sara Selkirk, assistant vice provost for student services, KCU-Kansas City, “and I wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea of what to do if it hadn’t been for LeAnn.”

Sara credits Carlton’s leadership style — a unique blend of sincere encouragement and a quirky humor — with helping her to gain the confidence to grow into her own role by giving her the tools needed to succeed, even if it was sometimes through unconventional methods.

“Soon after I first started, LeAnn was triaging what seemed like a revolving door of student needs. Suddenly, two students needed some immediate, one-on-one attention at the same time. LeAnn only gave me a ridiculously brief recounting of the student's issue and quickly ushered her into my office. I thought that it was going to be a disaster,” Sara laughed, “but LeAnn somehow knew it would be fine. And, it was. That student just needed someone to listen and quell some fears about her first exam scores, and I just needed to be thrown into the chaos so that I could realize that I could help."

Catherine Dobson, KCU’s director of student affairs, pointed out the simple, but sometimes rare, trait that Carlton embodies: even though she had a plethora of more “prestigious” responsibilities, she was always there wiping down tables or hauling boxes alongside her team. “Like Sara, I’ve learned so much from LeAnn,” Catherine remembered “Through her I saw what a great leader looks like. She never made you feel like she was above you, because she would never ask anyone on her team to do something she wouldn’t do herself.”

Summing up Carlton’s leadership skills, Dr. Winslow noted, “LeAnn had already built a great team by the time I had started [in 2013], and I was honored to be a part of it. She is a person with a kinetic energy in the way she interacts with people; she thrives on her time with students and her peers, and then she takes all the energy she created from those moments and directly reinvests it back in others. Above all, though, she’s always willing to give.”

The idea of Carlton serving as this perpetual force of good within the student culture of KCU is fitting. Growing up in a service-oriented family of educators, she knew that her calling would be to help people–but she didn’t always know that it would be through student affairs.

“I did work in some different industries before higher education, but I never felt 

like I was helping anything but a bottom line,” Carlton said. “Even at KCU, I initially started in development. But, in less than a year I was in student services. I've never regretted where, or to who, my career led me.”

Carlton elaborated on her time at KCU, reflecting on memories of early classes such as like the class of COM '01 – the first class she saw from orientation to commencement – all the way to current students, intermixed with exciting retellings of adventures with her team and the trials, tribulations and lessons learned along the way.

She tells of once promising to fill a semi-trailer with donations for Joplin tornado victims, but how she regrets that they only managed to fill it halfway, even though this is not a small feat. “I promise to try to never promise to fill one up the whole way ever again,” Carlton joked.

She speaks about celebrating KCU's centennial through not only the big events that year but also through her own little daily rituals like touching the university's commemorative "100" sculpture every day on her walk to her office while remembering the people, some gone, pictured on its surface.

She speaks of years of commencement celebrations where she sat, eyes filled with tears of joy as she watched graduates cross the very stage that they had, in difficult times, convinced themselves they would never reach. She remembers how her Facebook account was always flooded with friend requests after the ceremony and how she stays in touch with so many alumni, but that she misses the students after they leave.

And, she notes how most of her current doctors were once her students and that it's like being cared for by family.

Just over a year ago, a perfect storm of complex health issues left Carlon hospitalized and made it impossible to continue her work at KCU.

"I didn't want to leave KCU," Carlton said, "But, medically, I didn't have much choice. Honestly, I am just so thankful to be alive."

Carlton doesn't remember much from the first few days after she was hospitalized, but she has heard 

stories from her husband and others about how she was unresponsive and sometimes belligerent, with the doctors; she didn't want to answer their questions or let them touch her. It's hard to visualize an unaccommodating LeAnn Carlton, but the brain trauma she suffered had impacted her ability to recognize anyone or to understand her situation.

In that difficult time, there was a very real question of whether she would ever be herself again. Then, an unbelievable moment of serendipity gave her family their first moment of hope.

As Carlton laid thre in her hospital room,

Grace Hopp, DO (COM '18), was a third-year student doctor on a clinical rotation in neurology, completely unaware of what was happening down the hall. "We had a new patient on the list, but you can only see the first few letters of the last name when you're first reviewing it," Hopp said. "Then, when we went into the room it was packed with so many people that I couldn't see the patient either."

As Hopp listened intently from the back of the room the attending physician began the interview. "The moment I heard the patient's voice by heart instantly sank. It was our rock. It was our LeAnn. I knew my place as a medical school student was in the back, but I started gently pushing everyone out of the way to see her."

Grace made it to the bedside and watched, tears filling in her eyes and in utter disbelief, the situation in front of her. As Carlton continued to resist the attending physician’s interview questions, Hopp knew that she needed to help the person who had helped her so many times before.

"I leaned over and said, 'Ms. Carlton, would you like me to put your socks back on?' She nodded and then looked down at me. That's when she said, 'I know you'."

It was an amazing moment; for the first time since her accident, Carlton was able to recognize someone. Her family felt an immediate sense of relief. She wasn't yet able to place how she knew Hopp and couldn't remember her name, but she did know that she knew her. With just this small improvement in her cognitive function, Carlton's team of physicians gained their first real insights into the status of her memory capacity.

After finishing with her socks, Hopp sat with Carlton, reminded her of her name, and held her 

hand. "I was lucky to have a preceptor who would let me sneak away every day to see her and be with her as she recovered," Hopp said. "She is one of the strongest people I know."

For Carlton, though, she feels lucky that Hopp was somehow there.

"I don't know how long it would have taken to recover if it hadn't been for Grace. She could have easily left the room the minute she recognized me as the patient, and it would have been easier on her," Carlton said. "But she stayed, and she made sure she could help me. I don't know why, but I wouldn't try for the other doctors; but, I tried for Grace. I think that part of me saw it was my work, that I couldn't let her down because she was my student, this was her career and I needed her to succeed."

Even in the most distressing moments of her life, Carlton remained focused on being there for her students. Today she is recovering, thanks in part to her mostly KCU-educated team of physicians, but the lasting trauma of that incident and other health issues continue to cause some complications.

Yet, despite her health issues, she is still the same dynamic personality who draws you in, gets you laughing and sends you on your way feeling better than before. It's no mystery as to how she is an almost mythical figure even to those who know her. The real mystery is knowing how far, and for how long, LeAnn Carlton's legacy will eventually spread. Considering the strength of her spirit and the way in which she imparted her energy on everyone she met, it’s most likely perpetual.

Operating with Unconditional Support

Making sure that students stayed confident in their own ability often meant that Carlton essentially forced them to take time for leisure despite their daily stresses and busy schedules. “Med school especially is like climbing a mountain,” she noted. “You need to take breaks if you want to reach the summit. It doesn’t get easier if you just push through.”

Knowing that she couldn’t be with each student 24/7, she often made students sign contracts that kept them accountable. For some, these contracts would be a promise to watch a movie and bring Carlton back a report or reflection from the film to ensure they followed through.

For others, it could be as simple as promising to be in bed by a certain time or to take breaks at meal times.

For many though, these contracts included daily affirmations. Typically written on sticky notes so that students could place them up around their rooms, or mirrors, or anywhere they would be able to see them, these were phrases that Carlton asked the student to repeat to themselves as often as needed.

She would have the student write things like ‘I will be a great doctor’ or another simple phrase that would echo their goals – as well as counter their fears – on these notes. Often, she would ask them to write ‘I believe in myself ’ on one.

“A lot of the time, they would tell me ‘I can’t say that one, it’s not true’,” Carlton remembered. Her response to them, every time, was: “Well, you can always put LeAnn believes in me. Because, I do.”