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The Inside Story on Western University’s Joint Programs with Dean Gary Pierson – KLP Ep. 13

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00:00:00 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Because at the end of your run, what’s how might you define the legacy that you want to leave behind?

00:00:10 Gary Pierson
Wow, that’s a. Big question, I have to think about that, but. You know I for me. I just. I I feel very fortunate to have a job I love and place I love living. And you know, that’s what I would ask for for anybody if you go out you know, find a place you want to live and and love what you’re doing here. You know it’s cliche but you know if you have a job you love you never have to really work another day your life. True. And you know I never have any trouble getting out of bed in the morning because I love what I do and. You know, I hope my legacy is that you know. I helped make a difference for people.

00:00:56 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Welcome to the Cooler Lifestyle podcast. I’m your host, Matt Kuehlhorn, and I’m excited to have you join me as I interview community members and business leaders from the communities in which I live, work, and serve through my Business School or garage doors. We’re going to bring you highlights on characters in our communities. Why? Because Community matters, and I want to know more about who is behind our business and leadership in order to understand and support the Community. Fabric that our relationships make up, and collectively, we can build stronger communities that support our lifestyles, our youth, and our health. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Cooler Lifestyle Podcast. I’m your host, Matt Kuehlhorn and today I am joined by Gary Pierson, who I’ve known for man Gary. Now it’s probably a couple of decades as I’m an alumni of Western Colorado University and Gary, you are the Dean of students. I’m really excited to get into a conversation with you.

00:02:00 Gary Pierson
Well, thanks, Matt. I really appreciate the opportunity and it’s a real honor for me to be asked to participate in this, but. I clearly remember you as a student of Western transferred here, I think.

00:02:12 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Right. That’s right.

00:02:14 Gary Pierson
That’s right. And you know I got you involved in our strategic planning process and you came to these early 8:00 o’clock in the morning meeting. So I was impressed with you from the get go that you had that kind of work.

00:02:26 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Ethic. That’s right. I came out on CBMR second to last year of running their student work program in 97 and use that year to get my residency so that I could transfer and. Can have in state tuition in 1998, so that’s cool. Where did you grow up, Gary?

00:02:45 Gary Pierson
Well, I grew up in Lamar, Co that’s southeast Colorado. It’s 30 miles from the Kansas border. Grew up on a farm and ranch. And no, that’s my my humble beginnings. I didn’t really know anything different growing up in Southeast Colorado. I I never got to the mountains until I was 18 or 19. I mean, we did a few trips as a family, but. You know, I didn’t really know what the mountains were about until I, I went to to college. And, you know, my background is, is being in the outdoors, albeit it was in the flatlands of Colorado, but had a real appreciation for, you know, being outside. You know, a lot of my, my time growing up was helping my dad on the farm and ranch and, you know, that’s where I really got a lot of my, my work ethic and, you know, my my interest. For for the outdoors.

00:03:41 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, love it. So you mentioned college was up in the mountains. Where did you attend college?

00:03:46 Gary Pierson
Well, I don’t tell too many people this, but I I went to Adams State in Alamosa and, you know, I got a great education and experience there, but I took my first. Class and skiing at Adam saying that. And I skied a Wolf Creek and yeah, you know, so I I did my undergraduate and my graduate program at Adams. And do my graduate program. I found out that there’s opportunities to work in higher education. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I got my masters in counseling. And I found out that there’s opportunities to work in higher education and so. Through that Masters program I I got my first job in Quincy, IL. I was a resident hall director at Quincy College, which is now Quincy University. It’s 2/2 hours north of Saint Louis. And. Got some opportunities there. I advanced to the director, Sean activities and assistant Dean of students. And so that’s where I I really knew and learned that I wanted to stay in higher education, albeit I didn’t want to live in the Midwest. And from Quincy, I went to Pittsburgh State in Pittsburgh, Kansas and I worked at Kansas State in Manhattan, KS. And was always trying to get myself back to Colorado and. Couldn’t find the opportunity and so ended up going to Portland, OR and worked to Portland State. So you see a lot of states in this theme here and came back in, in 1996, I was director of admissions at Adams State, my alma mater. And then in 1998, position came open at Western for director of Campus Life, which was Western State Colorado University at the time. Yeah, but surprisingly enough, I’d never been to Gunnison growing up in Colorado throughout my life and then being in the Midwest for 14 or 15 years. And I feel like I was, you know, doing my my penance by living in the Midwest for that long. But I had the opportunity to come to Gunnison for my job interview. And I knew right away, like many people do, you come to the Gunnison Valley in this place speaks to you. And I knew right away this is where I wanted to be and. Just feel very fortunate and blessed that I got the job offer and got the opportunity to to come to Western in 1998 and from there I was promoted to Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and then Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of students and my current title 25 years. This is my 25th year Western. I’m Dean of students.

00:06:35 Matthew Kuehlhorn
That’s awesome. I didn’t realize that we were both new in 1998. I thought you had already been there for a while.

00:06:40 Gary Pierson
Yeah, no, that was my first year.

00:06:43 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Gotcha. Cool. What I what does it mean to you to be Dean of students?

00:06:49 Gary Pierson
Well, plain and simple. My job is to help students succeed at Western and to to really take care of students. You know, there’s lots of. Aspects and facets of that and I have a great team of people that I work with to help make that happen. In my reporting area, I have residence Life, campus recreation, our leadership and engagement and and development Office, Multicultural Center, campus security, medical and mental health. All those people report up through my area and our job is to support the academic mission of Western. But primarily, you know, we support students outside the classroom and we have lots of touch points with those students, but. You know, in essence, my job is to take care of students and help ensure their their overall health and Wellness and their success as they progress towards their degree at Western.

00:07:55 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Love it, love it. Um.

00:07:59 Gary Pierson
And in our.

00:08:00 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Chat prior to hitting record, you had mentioned being up on the third floor of Taylor, which maybe removes you a little bit from some of that student interaction. But I would also imagine that that would fuel you and your efforts quite a bit. So are are you a wanderer, do you walk around campus? How do you, how do you get that suit in interaction?

00:08:20 Gary Pierson
Well, that’s exactly what I do. I mean, I I don’t. I mean, I’m in my office when I have appointments, of course, and I go to lots of meetings, but. Intentionally, I go to the field house. I go to the university center. I try really pride myself on being at student activities and events. I mean, what makes this job doable for me, and what makes it so exciting is the opportunity to interact and work with Western students. I really, truly love the people at Western the faculty, the staff, and the students. But what gets me out of bed every day is that I know that I can make a difference for first students at Western. And and it’s just a privilege to to get to know and work with Western students. Much like I got to meet you and now I see you and the success that you’ve had in your life in your career. And I want to thank I played a small part in that albeit relatively small. But just knowing that I can help make a difference for people and that I can help people, that’s really truly my job is about and you know as an administrator and serving on the president’s cabinet. That allows me to be an advocate for students at a senior leadership level. Albeit at some meetings that I don’t really always enjoy sitting in uh, but you know I can help students by having a voice for them at a senior level leadership.

00:09:55 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah I love it and you’re you’re passion definitely exudes from you. I want to dive into Western Colorado University a little bit and you know in in my 20 plus years I think I technically graduated in 2001 with outdoor leadership and. Education focus, and I definitely credit Western giving me a ton, really a lot of hard skills, a lot of soft skills and you know, just being in this community I’ve watched. A lot of changes over the last 20 years. There’s been branding, there’s been naming, there’s now a new president.

00:10:38 Gary Pierson
What? There.

00:10:40 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I mean where do we wanna go? There’s a, there’s a new field and complex going in, so a lot of lot of changes and. How has that? Either impacted or been impacted by the culture at Western that you’ve been a part of. Over the last 25 years.

00:11:02 Gary Pierson
No. Well, it’s an exciting time to be at Western. You know we’ve got a lot of new initiatives and a lot of opportunity ahead of us. But conversely we we have lots of challenges to you and and I can talk a little bit more about that, but I’m really excited about the trajectory that Westerns on right now. You know, primarily because of just who we are as an institution and what we’ve always stood for. I mean we are all about helping. Transform lives. And I see that happen all the time. And again, that’s what gets me motivated, is that you see students come in as freshmen and watch him leave four or five years later. And and their lives are changed in ways that are are just amazing for me to to watch. But you know that takes a lot of work and effort on many people’s part to to make that happen but. It’s just really who we are as an institution. Organically. We care about students and student success and what students find their place here in the community and I, we talk a lot about the secret sauce of Western, and ultimately it’s the people at Western that make this place shine. It’s our faculty, staff, students, which I’ve referenced earlier. But that takes some nurturing and it takes some support. And you know, we went through various periods of leadership through, through Jay Hellman, through through Greg Salisbury and now Brad Bocken. And I’ve been really encouraged with Brad as our new President and the leadership he’s providing for Western. I think he’s helping us get back to the culture of Western that makes this place shine. And it’s hard not to be attracted to that when people come to the Gunnison Valley and they see our campus and they see our location. And then they hear about some of the real innovative programs are doing. We have the partnership with C Boulder, with our our Rady School of mechanical Engineering and computer science. And. The success we’re seeing, this is our first cohort that’s gonna be graduating this spring of 2023 with the C Bouldered program. And we’ve seen you know our incoming class that year was maybe 32 students. And I’m talking ballpark here and not exact numbers, but I think this last year we had close to 70 students coming in as part of that program. And so there’s partnerships with the that ready program with blister. Lab and our tourism association tourism and prosperity project that are helping advance the needle and creating interest and excitement around around Western and that that school of engineering and computer science as you reference we have a new football field stadium being built and again both Rady School and the stadium were. Direct beneficiaries of Paul Radian his generosity to Western, but he’s a Western alum and this place changed his life. Much like what I’ve referenced to you earlier, you know, he was an average high school student and came to Western and had faculty that were really instrumental in his success leaning Western. And because of that experience, he has intentionally chosen to give back to Western close to $100 million. So that in and of itself speaks to the kind of success that our Western students see, but more importantly to the loyalty that they have to displace. You know we have new academic programs coming in. We have a 3 + 2 programs where students can can leave Western with the A Masters degree in five years and I think we have seven or eight of those programs now. One of being is an outdoor retail MBA program, which again is has shown a lot of success and a lot of traction here at Western. And so, you know, there’s this. You know, culmination of a lot of things coming together that are gonna, you know, certainly require strong leadership, but it just feels like we’re in a place where we can make a difference in the bottom line for us and that is all around enrollment, that’s around, you know, recruitment and retention and and helping us grow as an institution.

00:15:47 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I love it. I love it. There’s a lot of things to be excited for.

00:15:52 Gary Pierson
Ohh, yeah, this is a they said a great time to be a western. You know new new opportunities for us in terms of leadership we’re bringing in. I think I mentioned to you prior to to this conversation we have a new Vice President for inclusivity. We’re hiring and you know I think that’s important that while we tend to to certainly attract students that are are coming to Colorado because they’re coming to Western because of our. Location and because of the outdoors, we also want to diversify and make sure that there’s equity and inclusion and a sense of belonging for for all steins on the Western campus. And so this was a intentional decision to hire a senior cabinet level member to keep our eye on the ball around diversity, equity and inclusion. And I think that’s an important step for Western as we move forward.

00:16:51 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, I get that. When it comes to you know where Westerns located, you know. Gunnison County in the community. How does and where might a community, whether it’s its businesses or? You know, other organizations get involved or interact with the student population to help anchor in that students sense of community, right? Like, I would imagine that’s a part of it. Like there’s a campus community and you know, I’ve heard it said a few times before like. We have a a collage in our town. Some people feel like it’s not necessarily a college town, and some people like that. Some people would want more of the the college influence, whether it’s for everybody to get excited on game day or. Any of the other events that that the college puts on, but where, where do you see the opportunity for, you know, the greater community to really? Help engage students and become even more part of Western Colorado University’s community.

00:18:00 Gary Pierson
Well, great question and a lot of thoughts on that but you know where I’d want to start and I admittedly I’m biased but I think Western is at the cornerstone of the growth and the the the resiliency and the vibrancy of the Gunnison Valley. We’re one of the major employers, but you know if we didn’t have a university in the Gunnison Valley, this place would look a lot different degree and bringing that energy in with students and with faculty and staff and from the educational opportunities that. Provides for the whole community that’s hard to replicate. You know, there’s many mountain towns that. Can’t say they have a university right out their back door to take advantage of and and so we definitely want to contribute to the betterment of the Gunnison Valley and we want to be active partners in that and. You know, that’s what I’m encouraged by with President back. I think he’s actively reaching out to leaders in the Gunnison Valley to let them know what’s going on at Western and how they can be part of that. But you know, it’s a give and take relationship. We need to be at the table. We need to contribute. Just as we’re asking community to contribute to Western and so I think there’s going to be opportunities for that coming forward. You know, we have a major capital campaign that you know we’re looking for for for funding and gifts from from people throughout the country, not just in the Gunnison Valley to help make Western better. But again, you know there’s things that we can do to give back and one of the things that I’m particularly proud of is that we have. Many of our faculty, staff, community members that are serving on boards that work with nonprofits. We have two days of service that our students go out, one in the fall and one in the spring. And they take a day out of their, their weekend or a day off like on President’s Day weekend and they go out and and serve the local community, you know, by volunteering. And so we’ve institutionalized that and I think there’s many more opportunities for that. You know, I’d be remiss not to mention our, our ice lab here on campus. That’s our innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial center that’s been a long standing. Long, but it’s been an ongoing partnership between Western and the ice slab and a lot of support again from TAP, which is our tourism and prosperity project to bring in employers to bring in industry to the Gunnison Valley and they base out of the Western campus at the Escalante complex. And so there’s great opportunities for students there to get internships, to do things, to learn about what it means to be an entrepreneur. And we’ve had Western alums that have worked in leadership roles at the ICE lab. And so, you know, really excited about the potential with that experience on campus. I mentioned blister, blister, Gary View before they’ve hired lots of Western students. Were internships that go out and and work for them and in marketing positions and right gear reviews and so excited about that partnership. But you know there’s all kinds of opportunities for Western students. To be part of our community through service, through internships, through just. Providing labor for restaurants for for the school district, for coaching youth leagues. And so you know I always feel like we can do better in terms of making Gunnison more of a university community. I don’t know that I’ve got the answer to that quite yet but I know the Westerns an integral part of Gunnison and vice versa. Gunnison is an integral part of Western and how we go ahead and and really. You know, mobilize that and operationalize it. I think there’s room for growth there, but. I’m just excited for the kind of leadership that we have in this valley. And what’s been particularly rewarding for me and noticeable is that we have lots of alums that are coming back to the valley and providing that kind of leadership. You being one of them, you never really left.

00:22:33 Matthew Kuehlhorn
But I tried.

00:22:35 Gary Pierson
Stamping with Camp Fire Ranch, you know he’s been exemplary and he graduated from Western and left and. For Red Bull and has come back to the Gunnison Valley and started this entrepreneurial adventure through his support through the Ice lab. And this guy’s going to be somebody who’s going to make it big mark in the world of outdoor recreation through his campfire ranch endeavor. And so again, there’s just this younger group, late 20s to early 30s that are coming back to the Gunnison Valley and providing the leadership we’re going to. Over the next 20 to 30 years to keep moving the needle forward for us.

00:23:20 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Love it. Mary Gary, this question is is off script, but I’m curious um, you know, you’ve been at your. Plays for 25 years and um. You know, hopefully many, many, many more years to come because I think you bring an amazing amount of passion and it just exudes that you’re rooting for for the student, right, and that personal transformation. And at the end of, at the end of your run, what’s how might you define the legacy that you want to leave behind?

00:23:56 Gary Pierson
Wow, that’s a. Big question, I have to think about that, but. Yeah, I for me. I just. I I feel very fortunate to have a job I love in a place I love living. And you know, that’s what I would ask for for anybody if you go out, you know, find a place you want to live and and love what you’re doing here. You know, it’s cliche, but you know if you have a job you love, you never have to really work another day of your life. True. And you know I never have any trouble getting out of bed in the morning because I love what I do and. You know, I hope my legacy is that you know. I helped make a difference for people. Uh, you know I ideal, as you can well imagine as Dean of students with. Some challenging student issues and workload, faculty and staff and. But at the end of the day, you know, I just really. Want to help people and that takes a lot of different shapes and forms. It’s maybe helping them academically, helping them financially, helping them with their mental health or medical health. Helping them make a connection in the community. And you know, I I just. Really, really want. To know in my heart of hearts that that I’ve made a difference for for people in their lives. And and so that in a nutshell is what I would say and the other part for me which is is huge is that you know, I have a family here and and because of the work I do at Western, my wife and my daughter Lily, my wife Shelly and my daughter Lily and my son Jack. They’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices because I tend to get pulled in a lot of different directions because of my work. But I also really value recreation, and that’s more about my mental health. You know, if I could mountain bike and ski, I don’t know that I could really do my job. That’s what motivates me, is that I get outside and I get to take care of myself. And I’m not going to tell you I don’t have fun doing it, man. I love mountain biking and I love skiing powder, but I’ve come more and more to really recognize and appreciate that. My effectiveness as a person and who I am as a leader is directly impacted by what I can do in the outdoors and it just makes a difference for me. And I know that’s why a lot of people are here in the Gunnison Valley. And trying to balance that. Get a little emotional, but. You know, it’s it’s not easy to do and and but again I just feel really blessed that I have a supportive family. That I’ve got people that care about me that work with me. And it gives me the motivation and energy to to do what I do best, and that’s how people should.

00:27:08 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Love that man. It’s beautiful. How might people reach out to you if they want to help you help people?

00:27:16 Gary Pierson
Well, just they I give everybody my cell number. My wife cringes at that. But no, I take calls and text messages anytime of the day or night as I can and. You know my cell number is 9705960533970596. 0533. I think one of my other strengths is I talked about earlier, is helping connect people and you know, if there’s opportunities for students, faculty and staff. You know, I want to know about it. And you know, I really. Appreciate the opportunity to help make things happen. Uh, you know, either in now the classroom for for members of our community.

00:28:07 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Gary, thank you so much for this conversation and. You know, truly, thank you for bringing your heart into your work.

00:28:18 Gary Pierson
Well, thank you again. I’m, I’m really humbled. I just feel like I’m a really lucky guy. To have. Western in my life and to have the people in my life that I do. I mean, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. And. You know, it’s as I said, it’s been 25 years and it’s went by like a blink of an eye. I can’t say that when I was working in the Midwest, it seems like I was there for a lot longer and I wanted to be for sure, but. You know, through my experience, you know. I had to pay my dues, I think, and because of that it created opportunities for me here Western that I’ve been able to capitalize on.

00:28:59 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that sense of fortunate definitely goes both ways. You know, the community and Western is fortunate to have you and. You know. I don’t feel like we see enough of each other, but I’m looking forward to the next time we run in together in in real life. And you know, for now we’ll put a wrap on this conversation and again, thank you. Really appreciate.

00:29:25 Gary Pierson
You well, thanks Matt. Appreciate you as well.

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