Master of Public Health, Class of 2014
Hometown: Nome, Alaska (by way of Texas and Louisiana)
Fun Fact: Certified as a master gardener and preserver, she’s adept at growing and canning food for her family of 10.
Sometimes parents have to steal a little “me time” after putting the kids to bed. These days, Cari Miller spends those precious nighttime hours absorbed in textbooks and school projects. But maintaining a 4.0 in the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at UAA is not the hardest thing she’s done. Until a recent move brought the Miller family to Anchorage, this mom of eight kids homesteaded and ran a mid-distance sled dog kennel outside the burled arches of Nome with husband Brian, where she budgeted those cherished evening hours to train for the centennial running of the 408-mile All Alaska Sweepstakes Sled Dog Race.
“It took extreme dedication, a firm commitment, and endurance—both physical and mental,” Cari says of training for the race. “Often I did my trail work after I got the kids into bed… As a person, I learned to have courage in the face of fear and to trust and rely on my own capabilities. I would often travel to very remote locations 40–50 miles from my home, out in the middle of nowhere—literally, by myself. I would overnight on the trail, alone. I would travel in inclement weather, alone.”
Unlike the Iditarod and most other long-distance sled dog races, the All Alaska Sweepstakes requires mushers to finish the race with all their dogs—no drop-offs along the route. So Cari had to carefully gauge the limitations of her team, as well as herself, while training, managing the home front and racing.
“Some days were good; others were horrible. One day the team worked together like a finely oiled machine; other days they were irritated and fighting with one another,” she says. “The same held true for dog team and home team alike.”
Her dedication paid off during the race, though. She and her furry, four-legged teammates completed the All Alaska Sweepstakes in 12th place, running from Nome to Candle and back. She received the Blatchford Spirit of the Race Award for her performance.
“I felt extremely accomplished and ready to take on the world!” Cari says. “I felt that I could begin my education again and start to pursue some lifelong dreams.” If she was able to maintain her home, her children’s education and her demanding training schedule, she thought, why couldn’t she trade that training schedule for college course work?
So this first generation college student (she earned a bachelor of liberal arts degree from University of Alaska Southeast last year) is on to grad school, studying public health with an eye toward medical school.
“I have always loved learning and classes are a joy for me; they are what I look forward to doing in my ‘free’ time,” she says. “I don’t see them as work…well, perhaps sometimes I do; but overall, I view classes as a fun opportunity to explore new ideas, learn new concepts, and to put my skills to work for myself—not really for my family, my husband, or my children—but just for me.”
The Millers are well-represented at University of Alaska—Cari’s eldest, Michael, just graduated from UAA with a degree in economics. Son Gabriel just finished his second year at UAF as an art major. And daughter Rebekah just graduated from high school and is headed to UAF in the fall. It seems fair to say she’s instilled some of her love for learning in her kids. But don’t take it from us.
Michael says, “Throughout my college career I had my mom to look to for support, advice and example. My mom managed to keep a perfect GPA despite having multiple other roles to fill…she has always been an amazing example and it was incredible to have her return to school just as I entered college so she could continue to be an example throughout college as well.”
“She is an amazing woman and a constant source of inspiration,” says Rebekah. “I am very proud of her.”
Gabriel says, “My mother has waited years to get her education, putting us and our school before herself…I cannot express how proud I am to be her son. My mother is more than our mother and educator; she is our hero.”
Living in bush Alaska where she worked with her family to maintain a mostly subsistence lifestyle, fishing, hunting and growing their own food, traveling by ATV and dog sled to get around, prepped Cari for a second career in rural health.
What turned her on to public health was the opportunity she had to shadow rural physicians. She saw the challenges they faced trying to help rural community members control and manage chronic health conditions, like diabetes. If she wanted to be an effective rural health care provider, she realized, she would need a strong foundation in community health.
“[The MPH program] will help me understand how different determinants of health, such as environmental or occupational exposures, socio-economic factors, dietary and physical activity, or the acculturation and assimilation process are at work in my rural community and how these issues affect the health of my future patients,” Cari says.
Keeping in mind her successful run in the All Alaska Sweepstakes helps Cari navigate graduate school. “I try to keep the semester in perspective—it is simply a series of checkpoints, and I just keep my eye on the next one. Not the finish line, but the next checkpoint,” she says.
“When my workload gets heavy, especially as finals near, I just think to myself, ‘I’m at Topkok’ or ‘I’m approaching Safety Roadhouse’…‘I’m almost at the finish line of my race, and I’m not going to quit now!’”
Cari is also buoyed by the fact that she’s not alone.
“I have a motto that has really guided me through my life: ‘What one man can do, another can do,’” she says, quoting Anthony Hopkins’ character in the David Mamet-written film, The Edge. She’s not the first, or last, woman to care for a big family or run a sled dog team or ace her college classes or become a physician in rural Alaska…though she may be the first woman to do all of them in the same lifetime.
She’s ready to tackle graduate school and med school, but those are just two checkpoints on her life course. Along the way she plans to continue with her kids’ educations.
Cari is currently teaching 4th, 6th and 8th graders as well as a high school freshman and junior at home. Loving what she does (and the kids she teaches!) makes the challenge of juggling so many grade levels worthwhile.
“My mother said that I taught myself and my little brother how to read when I was four from watching Sesame Street,” she says. So this passion for education has been lifelong. It’s rewarding to know she’s set so many young people on the path toward valuing learning as much as she does.
Here’s hoping this exceptional student has all the tools she needs for a great evening of “me time” tonight: a soft chair, some midnight sun and a real pageturner of a textbook. We can’t wait to read how Cari’s next chapter turns out. Maybe one day the future Dr. Miller will have time to write a memoir.