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Alumni Spotlight: Dr. John R. Helms, Class of 1998

The environmental scientist reflects on his years as an undergraduate at Virginia Wesleyan

University News | February 8 2024

After majoring in chemistry at Virginia Wesleyan and graduating in the Class of 1998, John Helms continued his education at Old Dominion University, earning a Master of Science degree in Analytical/Environmental Chemistry and then a doctoral degree in Biogeochemistry. He was an associate professor of chemistry at Morningside University in Sioux City, Iowa from August 2014 to September 2023. He is currently the Dean of Work-Learning and Faculty in STEM at Sterling College in Vermont.

We asked Dr. Helms to reflect on his years at Virginia Wesleyan and the impact those years made on his life and career.

How did your time at Virginia Wesleyan most impact your success?
Obviously, having gone into the field of higher education, my educational background from the faculty of - at the time - VWC, has been hugely impactful. There are so many faculty members and administrators whose teaching skill, professionalism, and empathy I continue to try to emulate in my work.

I was lucky enough to have a course with Dr. Stephen Mansfield before he became Academic Dean when I was a first semester freshman. I went back to campus for a homecoming soccer game - maybe 10 years after graduating - and not only did he remember me, but he asked about my parents whose names and details he could still remember!

My first experience with soft shell crabs was when the College President (at the time), Billy Greer, took me out to lunch at Bubba’s near Cape Henry. Seeing firsthand the dedication and personal touch that the top leadership of the college modeled at that time, has given me so much to live up to now that my career has shifted towards an administrative role in higher education.

Share your best memories of your time at Virginia Wesleyan?
The list of good times at VWC with my friends is really long, but I can easily say, meeting my wife of nearly 25 years, Rachel Cole ‘99 tops the list!

What professors had a positive influence on you?
As a chemistry major, I spent most of my classroom/lab time with Deb Otis, Jim Harris, and Betty Jefferson Harris, all of whom were amazing professors and really held me and my classmates to an exacting standard. It may have been painful at the time, but the rigor that was demanded of me in those formative undergraduate classes made most of my graduate coursework seem easy by comparison.

My junior year, I took a course with Verne Keefer on Global Environmental Issues that really re-oriented my thinking about the direction my career as a scientist could take. I ended up working in the Environmental Chemistry field for several years before eventually studying Marine and Environmental Chemistry, Chemical Oceanography, and ultimately Biogeochemistry at Old Dominion University. These years later, I can really draw a direct line between the things we discussed in Dr. Keefer’s class and my decision to take a job at Sterling College which has Environmental Studies as its only major.

Less related to my major and career, one of my favorite classes was actually a political science course taught by BIll Jones called “Politics Through Film.” The diversity of perspectives gained from a liberal arts curriculum at Virginia Wesleyan was really beneficial for me. With so many questioning the relevance of college, and the economic value of the liberal arts in particular, there is still so much to be gained individually and collectively when students can identify and access the right environment and course of study for their needs and goals.