LVG in the leaf pile cropped

Born in New York in 1969, Leslie grew up in Harrington Park a small community in Northern New Jersey. Her father was Curator of Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History and her mother was the director of the Art Center of Northern New Jersey. Her parents’ individual passions for the arts and the natural world both found a home within Leslie and she has spent most of her life inhabiting a combination of the two. 

Her father’s love of travel and wild places led to family trips to East Africa, and across the United States, as her father insisted that his children were ‘field assistants’ and were encouraged to participate in his research. While on a trip to Tanzania in 1984, she met one of the Program Directors of the Quebec Labrador Foundation, who encouraged her to work in environmental education on the west coast of Newfoundland. From 1985-1989, while finishing high school and attending the University of Michigan during the school year, she spent her summers in outport communities teaching environmental education, doing research work at a seabird sanctuary, and ultimately collecting folklore from the older members of the Southern Labrador Coast communities. 

Leslie studied British Literature at the University of Michigan where she graduated magna cum laude. Her honors thesis focused on the role of Darwin’s Origin of Species on the portrayal of animals in 19th century children’s literature. After graduation she returned to New Jersey as a Governor’s Teaching Scholar and began teaching high school English at Allentown High School. Five years later, after her father’s death (her mother died a week after she began university in 1986), she returned to North Jersey to teach at Northern Valley High School Demarest. She completed a Master’s degree in Literature, with an emphasis in Native American Studies, at the College of New Jersey while teaching and also took courses at Montclair State College in Curriculum and Instruction. Her Master’s thesis spanned both the English and History departments as she studied the role the media played in the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee and the 1973 seige at Wounded Knee. 

In 1998 she left classroom teaching to pursue her Ph.D. at the Union Institute and University. There, working with Nancy Owens and Joseph Meeker, she brought together her interests in educational reform and anthropology by developing an experiential education program for college-aged students called Road Scholars. She also focused her research and writing on the relationship between Place and Story especially among cultures who value Place over Time. Her 2002 dissertation won the university’s top dissertation award, the Sussman Award, and in 2008 her work on Place and Story appeared in her first book, Weaving a Way Home published by the University of Michigan Press. 

In 2002, she began to work for Walden University, initially as a part time faculty member in the Masters of Education program teaching courses on Educational Philosophy and Curriculum and Instruction. In 2004, she became one of the first full time faculty of the program, and later a Faculty Chair and Program Director where her role involved new faculty development, mentoring, the creation and sustaining of communities of culture and practice for geographically dispersed faculty. Later, her role evolved into serving as Program Director for Middle Level, Educational Leadership and Adult Education programs, and finally in a role focused on college-wide communications and faculty development. While in these roles, she also, and continues today, to mentor Ph.D. students in Education. In 2012, she stepped down from her full time administrative role to pursue her research, consulting, and community work more fully. 

Leslie began her archaeological work in partnership with her second husband, Kevin Sharpe. In the Autumn of 2001, he and Leslie were given access to research in Rouffignac Cave. For the next six years they visited the cave twice a year on field trips and also began to research in Gargas Cave. They both brought very different skills to their work and the combination of their energies led to the development of new research methodologies and host of new knowledge about Upper Paleolithic peoples. 

Kevin and Leslie lived in Oxford, U.K., where Kevin was a member of Harris Manchester College. He was originally from New Plymouth, New Zealand. Annually they visited his family and over time, in 2006,  bought land in the Rees Valley near the village of Glenorchy where they intended to live for part of each year. Kevin developed a brain tumor in 2007 and died in November of 2008. 

Leslie built her home in New Zealand and today works with new research and creative partners. She has co-produced a book with sculptor, Shane Woolridge; facilitates leadership workshops with Horse Whisperer Andrew Froggatt; continues her cave research with April Nowell; and is actively involved in local heritage and community projects in her home community of Glenorchy. 

She travels extensively throughout the year, co-hosting the Roundstone Conversation on Place and Story in Co. Galway, Ireland, attending conferences, and lecturing. She has been a recent Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University and gave a recent TEDx talk on the role of kindness and intimacy in the past. 

She can be reached at

© Leslie Van Gelder 2017