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September 16, 2014

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Intent on her doctoral dream

Former high school teacher delves into study, research — leaving life on hold

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Sam Morris

Leisl Carr Childers is a woman on a mission. She gave up a teaching career with its steady paycheck and health insurance to pursue a dream: earning her doctoral degree in history, which she is working toward at UNLV.

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  • Leisl Carr Childers, 36, a doctoral candidate in UNLV's history department, talks about having children.
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  • Carr Childers talks about the daily sacrifices she and her husband make to save money.
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  • Carr Childers on why the sacrifices are worthwhile.
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None of it happened by accident.

The months spent living out of a 1993 Ford Explorer, the mountains of debt, the gamble of putting off having children at 36 years old — everything has been deliberate, everything planned.

Leisl Carr Childers is a woman of resolve.

Quiet and pensive, a small brunette with a big smile, she came to Las Vegas three years ago to chase a dream.

Her ambition is to earn a doctoral degree, the intellectual equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. The list of books she has read since fall 2005 is 57 pages long.

“My story, simply put, is I’m a former high school teacher ... I wanted more out of my career,” said Carr Childers, a doctoral candidate in UNLV’s history program.

“I always knew I wanted a Ph.D. I just didn’t have a wherewithal to pursue one until I was willing to just walk away from my regular life, my paid life, my professional life, and return to school.”

Breaking into the ranks of the academic elite requires more sacrifices than many people are willing or able to make. The average scholar takes about eight years to earn a doctorate after entering graduate school, according to a survey of recent U.S. Ph.D. recipients that was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies. One in eight leaves school with more than $50,000 in debt.

And after years of work, the payoff in some fields can be paltry. In Carr Childers’ beloved history, for example, the average annual salary for a new assistant professor is $52,893, according to a survey of more than 100 large universities by Oklahoma State University’s institutional research office. Together, Carr Childers and her husband, a fellow Ph.D. student she met at UNLV, owe Sallie Mae and Uncle Sam four times that amount.

But in a city that’s a trap for wishful thinkers hoping to strike it rich, Carr Childers is a visitor with a different kind of dream. For her, wealth lies in knowledge.

In a world obsessed with money, with the flashy and ostentatious, she finds joy and sanctuary in the nonmaterial — in words and ideas, in learning. While others chase paychecks and promotions and gorge on everyday comforts, she burrows into history books and lives in the past.

Though she doesn’t plan to stay here after graduating, her work as a temporary resident is enriching the community. Like other graduate student researchers, she is unearthing information about the region.

She has poured thousands of hours of labor into UNLV’s Nevada Test Site Oral History Project. Her dissertation will explore the environmental history of the Great Basin in the nuclear age.

She finished her coursework and nailed her comprehensive exams and hopes to walk away with her degree in a couple of years. Every sacrifice brings her closer to her dream.

“In the historical profession,” she said, “the Ph.D. is the degree that professionalizes me.”

“To be a Ph.D. in history means that you have read all that has come before you ... It’s knowing the foundation that you stand on, because every historian stands on the shoulders of all those who come before.”

•••

Carr Childers is enamored of history because she views it as something complex, something rich, not as a chronology of events, but as a collection of human experiences.

She remembers taking a class on Western civilization at a community college in Arizona, where her parents live, and falling in love with the way her professor explained the Renaissance, the exploration of the Americas. Instead of portraying history as a chain of happenings, he mused about why the past might have unraveled the way it did.

“He talked about historical events as if they were surprising, as if they were interesting, as if they were unfolding right before us,” she said.

History, she realized, is about human struggle, about the great turmoil people went through as they grappled with what to do.

“The dropping of the atomic bomb is a perfect example,” she said. “How do you make the decision, if you’re Harry Truman? What evidence did he examine?”

A society is best prepared to plan for the future when it understands its roots, Carr Childers said. And historians, she said, “make the past live and breathe again.”

Studying history, she added, gives her the power to tell stories of people whose voices might not otherwise be heard.

“This idea that the victors write history, that the people in power get to control what story’s being told, I hate that,” she said, her usually level voice betraying a hint of indignation. “That is not what this discipline is about. It’s not right, and it’s not fair, to just glaze over things that people, society, find inconvenient because they’re too complex to deal with. And when I dig my hands into the complexity of the story, I find out what’s real, what’s gritty.”

“It gets at something I care about very much, which is knowledge and understanding, and even a level of truth.”

•••

Part of what is striking about the hardships Carr Childers has endured is that she enjoyed the advantages of a middle-class upbringing.

Both parents went to college. Her father was an Air Force and commercial pilot, her mother an early childhood educator and stay-at-home mom. They paid for her undergraduate education at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., but couldn’t afford to bankroll her advanced studies.

So after getting a bachelor’s degree in 1993, Carr Childers borrowed money and went after a master’s degree in history at Pepperdine. But she dropped out to get a teaching credential and worked for several years supporting her then-husband.

Still, she clung to her dream and in 2004, as a happy divorcee, she returned to Pepperdine to finish her master’s degree.

The amount Carr Childers owed for her student loans was staggering: more than $150,000.

To avoid more debt, she took a job at a coffee shop and lived out of her SUV from fall 2004 to the following spring. Many nights she slept in the back seat of her white Ford Explorer in the school parking lot.

Sometimes she stayed with friends or her brother, but it wasn’t a case of moving temporarily. “I had my stuff in my car all the time. My clothes, my books, everything was in the car,” she said. “I didn’t move into somebody’s house.”

Doggedly independent, stubbornly proud, she refused at first to tell her parents. They eventually “dragged it out of her,” said her mother, Sandra Carr, 64.

“I chided her for not letting us know because I would have stretched something to get her what she needed,” Carr said.

Speaking of the sacrifices her children have made to get an education, Carr said, “it has made me very angry because I have three bright children.”

“Even the brightest and the best, with their parents being as hardworking and well-employed as my husband has been, it has not been possible for them to come out the other end (without being) saddled with so much debt,” Carr said.

“They also want to own a house and have a family, and we know how expensive that is.”

•••

It’s not that they’re living in poverty. Carr Childers and her husband, Michael Childers, 34, buy organic food and splurge on season passes to a ski resort by Childers’ hometown in Colorado.

Still, their earnings don’t go very far, with rent, books and health insurance gobbling up a lot of cash.

Last year, the couple’s combined income was $33,731. Most of that came from working for UNLV, which pays its best doctoral candidates to teach and research.

“Some of the things that Mike and I give up on a regular basis are going out to restaurants, going out to movies, doing recreational activities that cost money, taking trips,” Carr Childers said. “We try to extend our gas by biking to work.”

“What makes this particular situation difficult is we don’t really have the financial means to have a kid ... Mike and I would love to have children ... I’ll continue to delay that decision until I have a reasonable handle on my career, which may mean that I’m 40, 45 before I ever make that first attempt.”

To stretch their money, they live in a $900-per-month apartment in a neighborhood near UNLV that students tend to avoid if they can. In February, someone stole Carr Childers’ beloved Ford Explorer, which was 320,000 miles old, from the apartment complex parking lot.

Taking on other jobs would only force the pair to stay in school longer. They research, write and teach full time, typically working through the weekends.

“I could go through five books in a day, and sum them up,” Carr Childers said. “We call it gutting.”

Her duties with the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project are often tedious, tasks such as reviewing transcripts of interviews for accuracy and identifying people in faded snapshots.

But putting in long hours has yielded rewards. The couple have studied under such experts as Hal Rothman, an environmental historian who was a giant in his field.

Carr Childers snagged a $10,000 fellowship with the Autry National Center in Los Angeles this summer. She also won a newly minted fellowship named for Rothman that pays $7,000 to a history graduate student who uses UNLV’s libraries to research.

Husband and wife hope to finish their dissertations by 2010. After that, they will look for work at universities, museums and other organizations with openings for historians.

Once they have settled, they will be able to consider all those things they have put off for so long — having children, buying a home.

Many doctoral recipients fail to land good jobs, but “I would bet my money on Leisl and Mike Childers,” said Eugene Moehring, chairman of UNLV’s history department.

•••

When Carr Childers leaves Southern Nevada, her contribution to the community will be a better understanding of atomic testing and how it shaped the region’s development.

Her dissertation and work with the oral history project will challenge the conventional notion of the test site and surrounding region as a remote nuclear playground devoid of human life.

Photographs of the high-security installation that have captured the public imagination seem only to attest to the isolation of the place: Mushroom clouds towering over a dusty landscape. Giant craters scarring the earth.

This strange world, however, was not just empty desert.

Carr Childers’ research deals, in part, with the people who roamed these lonely stretches of land, living in the shadow of nuclear fallout. Among them were proud Nevada ranching families and government men who monitored radiation levels after each atomic blast.

“Instead of it being a typical Cold War ‘us or them’ mentality where it’s the government versus the people, the radiation monitors established a relationship (with ranchers),” Carr Childers said. “And that’s not something you hear too much about.”

Donald James, a former radiation monitor whom Carr Childers interviewed, is close friends to this day with some of the rural folk he met on the job. Now 75, he said without her work, the stories of old-timers “will be lost after we’re gone.”

And that, Carr Childers said, smiling, is what makes her sacrifices worthwhile.

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