Kevin Helfman sits inside the Buzz Café at the University of Oregon, simultaneously flipping a page in Plato’s The Republic and adjusting the rubber band that is holding his ponytail.
Three years ago, he was nearly unrecognizable in comparison to the 21-year-old, dreadlock-adorned philosophy student that he is today. When he was a student at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., Helfman was considered “preppy,” wearing polo t-shirts and focusing heavily on soccer and his social life.
During his sophomore year at the University of Oregon, something changed. “I took my first philosophy class and ended up loving the questions it brought up about how everything is kind of shifting and reformulating itself consciously,” says Helfman.
As he became more immersed in his major, he gained more confidence in changing his style and interacting with different kinds of people. “People in the philosophy major seem to really be able to walk around and be happy with themselves,” Helfman says.
Known for having a fake ID during his teenage years growing up in Chicago, he was often the life of the party. “In high school I drank because many kids did,” Helfman says. However, after taking several philosophy classes and exposing himself to literature like The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, Helfman’s outlook on life, as well as partying, changed. “I started to see drinking as abusive and I didn’t want to make excuses for my actions,” Helfman says. “I want to always provide fruition through conversing with others and myself where we can all benefit each other.”
Through his philosophy classes and literature, Helfman has been exposed to the idea that life is about finding happiness. Though he has always known what makes him the happiest, it wasn’t until he was introduced to philosophy that he gained the confidence to spend his life doing what he loves. “Some people love biking, reading books or playing sports, but mine has always been interacting with people, strangers or friends. That is where I get my joy,” Helfman says. Instead of spending his free time partying, Helfman can now confidently spend his time outside of the classroom having deep conversations with new and old friends.
As his passion for philosophy increased, he continued making changes in his life. In the middle of his sophomore year, Helfman disaffiliated from the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity and moved back into the on-campus dorms. “In the fraternity, I felt like I was not progressing my mind, and it began to feel claustrophobic,” he says. In the dorms, Helfman says that he was able to put more focus on schoolwork and create long-lasting friendships with a diverse group of people.
As he sets down his book and attempts to fix his ponytail, a friend wearing an old basketball jersey and athletic shorts interrupts him. After a few moments of banter, he picks up his book again. Five minutes go by until the greeting of another friend breaks his focus. This time, it is a woman wearing a Kappa Delta sorority sweatshirt. After an hour of “studying,” Helfman has had a short conversation with five different people, each person appearing to come from a different social group. Finally, he packs up his book and water bottle, slips his hemp loafers back onto his feet, and leaves the café.
He says that his time spent studying Philosophy has given him the confidence and courage to have friendships with people from all social groups and backgrounds.
“I certainly see the phenomenon of philosophy leading one to a happier life in Kevin, or, at least, I see Kevin using philosophy in a way that has a direct impact on his life,” says David Alexander Craig, a Graduate Teaching Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oregon. Helfman and Craig have established a close relationship over the past year, spending office hours discussing everything from personal to outside experiences with philosophy. “Kevin has a philosophical personality. That is, he is open-minded, about people, ideas, and things around him,” says Craig.
Helfman stresses the importance of having the ability to balance the presence of philosophy in certain situations. “One moment, I will have philosophy turned all the way on, but sometimes I need to turn it off because it’s fun to be irrational and just be goofy and not have to think critically all the time,” he says.
According to Helfman, constantly interacting with people can be exhausting, especially when his philosophical mindset is fully turned on. “He will ask questions about what he does, why he is engaged in the types of things that he does and why he is passionate about what he is passionate about,” Craig says.
After a day of studying in the Buzz Café, he retreats back home to prepare for a different type of exercise. As he finishes tying the laces of his navy blue Nike running shoes, that have been with him throughout his entire college career and philosophical transition, he carefully sets his cell phone down on the kitchen counter beneath a photo of his roommates that he met back in the dorms sophomore year. He then gently pulls out his silver studded earrings and heads out the door. “When you are on a run, you could be thinking about that philosophical stuff and then all of the sudden you are so focused on what you are doing and your breath and each step you take that your mind becomes completely free,” Helfman says. “I need this time to free my mind.”
Philosophy has allowed Helfman to find what truly makes him happy, and do so without hesitation. “I believe that people like Kevin are ‘philosophical’ long before they even encounter the subject,” Craig says. Craig is confident that Helfman will continue living his life for himself and keeping an open mind. “Whatever he does, whether in industry, teaching, research, or what have you, he will continue to manifest this nature and will live an examined, philosophical life,” Craig says.
As for life after college, Helfman only has only one request. “People ask me what I want to be when I am older. It’s simple; I want to be happy.”