Life events have provided Kellye Walters-Warren with more than enough food for thought. Now her focus is on food for health.
Walters-Warren recently started work on her master’s in clinical nutrition at Rush University after raising three children, caregiving for her mom and witnessing how poor nutrition led to health disparities in the underserved community she grew up in. She talked to us about her nontraditional path to health care and the events that sparked her passion for nutrition.
Tell us about your background.
Kellye Walters-Warren: I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the South Shore community. I went to college right after high school, but it just wasn't working for me at the time. So I left college after two years and started focusing on raising my family — I have three children.
During that time, I did earn my associate degree in biological sciences from Triton College in River Grove, though it did take quite a few years to finish. I finished in 2018. When my three kids were nearly out of the nest — my youngest was in high school — I decided to focus more of my attention on school and get my bachelor’s degree. I always wanted to enter the health care field, so in 2018 I started work on my bachelor’s in health sciences at Rush.
I was working in retail at the same time and some of my focus was still on my kids, but I just had to finish. I wanted my kids to see me accomplish something. I wanted them to realize that you’re never too old to pursue what you really want to do. I eventually finished the program and stayed at Rush in 2020 to pursue a master’s degree in clinical nutrition.
The South Shore has such a rich and complex history. How has your experience there shaped who you are and your drive to be successful?
KWW: I grew up in a single-parent home with my mom. Our maternal grandmother also helped raise us. I grew up knowing education was important. My mom wanted us to have better opportunities than she did; she only had a high school education. My mom encouraged us to go to college even though she didn’t understand much about higher education.
Maybe the people in the community I grew up in can look at what I have accomplished and think, “If she can do it, then I can do it also.” It has not been an easy journey, but I promised myself after I left college years ago that I would keep pushing forward and never give up on myself.
What drew you to health care and why did you choose clinical nutrition specifically?
KWW: I always had a real love of health care, and learning about health and how to be healthy. And being a caregiver for family members was definitely a factor. My mom was especially a driving force. She had high blood pressure and heart disease, and eventually died of cancer. I realized that was where my passion really was: helping people.
During my time in the bachelor’s program at Rush there was always something about nutrition that drew me in — the realization that nutrition is the basis of health, how to be healthy and how to maintain health.
Coming from an underserved community, I thought of all the people who would benefit from knowing that nutrition is the basis of health. What you eat and don’t eat plays such a huge role in diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, and comorbidities. That really hits home when you see that these are the people who are most likely to succumb to COVID. I asked myself, “What can I do to help?”
All of that was proof enough that clinical nutrition was the direction I wanted to go in.
Why did you decide to remain at Rush to pursue your clinical nutrition goals?
KWW: When I was in the bachelor’s program, I was able to sit down and talk to some of the people in clinical nutrition, like Dr. Sarah Peterson, and I shadowed Dr. Sandra Gomez-Perez, a clinical nutrition faculty member who focuses on research. There’s also a community on the West Side near Rush that is underserved and in need of caring health care providers. I really felt like this is where I needed to be.
And I like being at Rush overall. I’m not the average student, having waited to go back to school until I raised my kids. I’ve never felt like my age has been a factor here, though. The students and faculty don’t treat me any differently because I’m older. It’s very welcoming.
Faculty members in the BSHS program from day one were so very helpful in molding the direction I decided to take. They saw so much potential in my abilities and helped me on my journey to realize my strengths and where in the health care environment I would have the biggest impact.
Dr. Brinda Bradaric was the first to introduce me to the Clinical Nutrition program, along with Dr. Peterson. Dina Batlivala Tresselt in admissions encouraged me endlessly. Kenya M. Johnson was helpful in keeping me grounded and always reminded me to never give up. Mary Jo Guglielmo was supportive and helped mentor me during the entire BSHS program, and continues to mentor me today. I am so thankful for their guidance.
I also work at Rush, so there was a convenience factor of staying here. I’m a program assistant for the bachelor’s in health sciences program. I work with the program directors to help keep things running smoothly.
Are there any fulfilling projects you're working on?
KWW: In the fall, I’ll get started on my thesis project. It will probably focus on something related to how gut health plays a role in obesity — how the microbiome plays a role in those who are obese and those who aren’t. Obesity is just such a big problem. I mean, it’s a big problem everywhere, but it is especially so in underserved communities for so many reasons.
What advice would you give someone who might be taking a similar path? What would you tell your younger self?
KWW: I would tell people to never give up. Ask for help if you need help — that’s part of learning how to be a grown-up. Don’t give up on yourself just because you need help.
To have a job is one thing, but to have a career is something else. It opens up so many more doors. You really have to want to love what you do. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do what you want to do.