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PROFILE: Jay Helman at the Helm

It’s been ten years since Jay Helman assumed, in his unassuming way, the role of college president for Western State Colorado University. “Ten years of aggressive seed planting,” he says.
He’s president, and yet by all accounts, an unpretentious, approachable man with a knack for making people feel instantly at ease. “Hey Jay!” students wave and shout when they see the unmistakable, lanky frame of their leader striding across campus or through the commons. Helman has never quite fit the archetypical labels assigned to his pursuits, thwarting expectations at every turn.
“I was a basketball player who majored in English literature,” he says. “This made me an anomaly.” Helman says his athletic scholarships to UCLA and later the University of California Santa Clara, “paid for an undergraduate education I otherwise could not afford.”
Helman played professional basketball for three years after graduating from UCSC, touring southern France and the Mediterranean coast. He later worked for 3M Corporation. “Then I ran away to school,” he says, returning for a master of arts in yet another unlikely subject, psychology. Sports psychology might have made the most sense given his career as a professional athlete, and he considered it, but after extensive research, found it “limiting.” So Helman chose a program at California State University Sonoma that allowed him to explore eastern mysticism and religion. “That’s when I decided to pursue a career in higher education,” he said.
His Ph.D. came from Pennsylvania State University in exercise and sports science. With no academic background in the subject, Helman took several prerequisite science and kinesiology classes just to catch up with classmates in the program. The moral of this life story?
“It’s not true that one path will take you where you want to go. It’s good to be well rounded.” Pursuing one’s passions is what’s important, Helman insists. “Trust in the process and know that somehow, all the attributes will come together for a meaningful life.”
An athlete and a scholar, Helman’s areas of study have varied, yet they’re all tied to a quest for self-understanding and a search for the link between higher education and athletics. “There’s something about contests and competition,” he says, and more generally, about the need to aspire, strive and achieve. Regarding the college experience and student success, he says, “I think it has to do with the importance of engagement. Athletes, artists, scientists—if we meet students where their passion is, they will persist long enough to find their way.”
Helman began his tenure with WSC, now WCSU, as a basketball coach and member of the sports and exercise science faculty. He progressed to department head, then upward, to work alongside President Harry Peterson for six years before taking the helm himself in 2002.
It was the dead of winter when Helman was pushed toward a new, unexpected path, one that would test his mettle and prove his anomalous nature once again. That fateful evening, January 12, 2009, he suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his entire left side. Helman was rushed to Gunnison Valley Hospital, where his condition prompted the decision to transport him to a facility better equipped to help. A blizzard that night put Denver out of reach. Grand Junction became second choice, but Helman was too tall to fit into the helicopter that would ferry him there. A fixed-wing craft was secured. The plane’s destination: Salt Lake City. As it so happens, the University of Utah has one of the best stroke and brain trauma centers in the world.
Helman has little memory of the stroke or the surgery, during which a piece of his scull was removed and the clot excised. Nor does he remember worrying much about his condition during the time immediately following the event. It wasn’t until some weeks later when, wheeled from his hospital bed to that first day of rehab, “They took me out of the chair, and I realized I couldn’t walk.”
The recovery process was grueling. “I had to relearn how to swallow, and basic, organizational tasks. There’s this dark hole you’re in,” says Helman. “You’re in it, and you don’t know you’re in it. I don’t think anybody was giving me much of a chance, but I had great care, and worked really hard. It’s been one hell of a journey of self awareness.”
It was April before Helman returned to Gunnison, where his climb from that hole out into the light continued. He has since created a local conference for those who’ve suffered what he refers to as the “invisible wound” of traumatic brain injury. “It’s something impossible to comprehend,” he says, “unless you’ve experienced the physical, cognitive, proprioceptive and balance issues.”
Today, he’s back, full throttle, ready for the next 10 years. In the last decade, the college has gained two new graduate programs, a hybrid, or low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program, and a similarly-styled master of arts in education program. And while it’s too soon to spill the beans on future graduate programs, Helman says upwards of three more are in the works.
“We’re also exploring the valley and the college as a small business incubator,” he says, “to develop and support a sustainable local economy.”
A new field house, recreation and human performance center, an alliance with Gunnison Valley Health, Adaptive Sports and Alpine Orthopedics—it’s a concept that would “brand this valley as a center where people can dip their toes into all areas of wellness and human performance. Add in the psychological and nutritional aspects, too,” he says. “It’s on the drawing board.
“It’s a new century, a new university. We’re starting from scratch with the advantage of 100 years in our hip pocket. We’re establishing a culture of anything is possible.”
A new university indeed. Helman took serious heat for the name change, the new moniker Western State Colorado University emblazoned now on everything from letterhead to t-shirts. “People saw it as a search for a silver bullet in the short term.” Rather, he says, it was prompted by a long-range view, that of a growing, dynamic university.
“People are obsessed with enrollment,” he says, and rumors are persistent that Western is on a downhill slide. “In 10 years, we’ve raised $50 million in private funds, $127 million for improvements and construction. I just can’t imagine how people could think this place is on the brink.”
If Helman himself obsesses over anything these days, it’s the future. “What’s driving me is that I think we’ve got a whole lot to do. As long as they stay with me, I’m going to stay on to see it all happen.”

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