Ready to change the world

Recent alumna and Operation Smile Mizzou founder Emilee Carleton found her place and her mission through student involvement.

June 12, 2023
Contact: Deidra Ashley,

Emilee Carleton arrived at the University of Missouri four years ago a self-described introvert who was looking for a path forward. She recently graduated with a degree in health science, a clear vision for her future, and a wealth of experiences from her student involvement.

Part of Carleton’s introversion stems from her childhood experiences: A family from Hannibal, Missouri, adopted her from China when she was 2. Shortly thereafter she had the first of 14 surgeries to repair a cleft lip and cleft palate.

Early in her life, Carleton said she felt children — and even adults — did not accept her because of how she looked and spoke. She recalled an instance in high school when she had her jaws wired shut for weeks after a surgery. “After I got my wires out, I had to give a speech, but my voice was so weak," she said. "A girl said to me, ‘You were better when you didn't speak.’ There were many instances like that growing up, and I just wanted to stay in my safety zone.”

Even so, Carleton considers being introverted a gift. “It has taught me not to conform to what people want me to be and not to be easily influenced by other people's opinions and judgments,” she said.

Finding her place

Carleton’s journey to MU began when she visited campus as a high schooler. Although she was accepted into Mizzou, she ultimately enrolled elsewhere in 2018. After one semester, however, she was ready for a change. “I knew that there were more programs and more support for a variety of students at Mizzou,” she said. "I felt like I could really find my place there.”

Carleton came to Mizzou as a chemistry major but switched to health science during her sophomore year.

“I was in hospitals so much as a kid,” Carleton said. “And when I got to college, I wasn’t planning on going into medicine or stepping foot in another hospital. But I realized I was drawn to the people at the hospital and the people who took care of me. I just want to be able to take care of other people.”

Carleton found a mentor in Robin Bowman, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Health Sciences. “She was a phenomenal professor who cared about helping her students tackle health care issues that nobody wanted to deal with,” Carleton said.

After taking Bowman’s public health class her junior year, Carleton was motivated to change health care for the better. “Dr. Bowman made me aware of how much we can do on our end as health care workers and advocates,” she said. “She taught us that it is our duty to work with all kinds of people regardless of their condition because that is the true meaning of this profession.”

Carleton took Bowman’s lessons to heart, where they resonated with her own personal experiences. “I was reflecting on what I'm passionate about and who I am,” Carleton said. “The surgeries I had are part of me, and that's why I started a club to help people embrace their differences.”

‘My personality just bloomed’

In 2021, as a junior, Carleton started Operation Smile Mizzou, a local chapter of Operation Smile. The nonprofit medical service organization provides cleft lip and palate repair surgeries to children worldwide.

With Bowman serving as the chapter’s advisor, they set out to recruit students to get involved.

“It was nerve wracking at first,” Carleton said. “I'm not the best conversationalist, and I'm not great in social situations in general. But my personality just bloomed once I found my spot. I was pushing myself to be open and willing to meet other people.”

“As more and more people joined, the more excited Emilee became,” Bowman said. “She had a passion for informing the public about cleft conditions and never lost sight of those with the condition.”

Bowman said Carleton’s leadership style is one of compassion. “She always uses her story to inform others not only of the physical limitations of the condition but the emotional and mental toll it took on her as well,” Bowman said. “That takes courage and commitment.”

Operation Smile Mizzou members volunteer at local hospitals, raise funds for the organization and sometimes participate in medical missions around the world — delivering medical supplies and helping tell the stories of children with facial differences.

“My hope was to give students opportunities to help other people, to find a passion to make the world better,” Carleton said. “I want to help people realize there's so much we can do to work for a better future.”

On the right path

Carleton’s desire to serve led to a part-time job at MU Health Care, where she now works as a patient care technician and certified nursing assistant. Ultimately, she wants to work in pediatrics. Her current plan has her spending a year working in a research laboratory before applying to medical schools.

As Carleton prepares to open the next chapter in her life, she reflects on her years at Mizzou. Of all of her achievements, she said she’s most proud of creating a community for students who want to serve.

“At Mizzou, I found incredible people who want to dedicate their lives to serving children and other people in need,” she said. “Just making an impact with the people in my club and finding those people who are ready to change the world was my biggest accomplishment.”

Story written by Theo Schwinke

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