Better by a Degree: A Profile of Columbia College - Lake of the Ozarks alumni Joe Cochran

Joe Cochran (left) and Tracy Robinette were recipients of the Lake campus' Phil Davis Scholarship in 2011. The scholarship is awarded to students that register excellent academic performances and asist their fellow students in their educational efforts.

By Jeff Burkhead
Lake Media
Weekly Standard

It’s the time of year when recent college graduates are job hunting or joining the workforce.

Joe Cochran already has a job.

In fact, he had a full-time job the entire time he was taking college classes. Not to mention he is a husband and a father.

And now he has a degree.

Cochran is definitely not a typical recent college graduate.

For one, he’s 32 years old.

Besides that, he’s an elected official.

Cochran, who is running for a second four-year term as the Miller County assessor, graduated from Columbia College’s Lake of the Ozarks campus in April with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Cochran is the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college. His wife, Jennifer, who works part time as a computer technician at the Columbia College campus at the lake, is working on a pharmacy degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, through a satellite program at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“We both believe in education and bettering yourself,” Joe said.

Columbia College is a family affair for the Cochrans. Joe’s father, Michael, works in the maintenance department at the Lake of the Ozarks campus.

Cochran took a nontraditional path to earning a college degree.

“They always tell you to go to college right out of (high) school, but sometimes things happen and it doesn’t work out,” he said.

For Cochran, he started working in the assessor’s office the summer after he graduated from Iberia High School. His first day on the job was Aug. 17, 1997, to be exact.

He’s been there ever since.

“They can’t get rid of me,” Cochran said. “I started out in the mapping department in the old courthouse. My office was back in the old bank vault they had in there. They called it the dungeon.”

Cochran eventually worked his way up to the position of deputy assessor, and then he became the GIS (geographic information system) coordinator, before running for office for the first time in 2008.

But in the back of his mind, Cochran always wanted to go to college. He began working on his bachelor’s degree three years ago.

“I finished up my associates in general studies,” he said. “In 2009, I started working on my bachelors pretty much full time, in the evenings and online, and I finished it up this year.”

Cochran was a model student, said history professor James Pasley.

“He shows other people it can be done,” Pasley said. “He was a great student. He didn’t come in here and squeak by. He’s blown the doors off. I threw a lot at him, and he always amazed me. He graduated with honors and has the respect of everybody here. It doesn’t get any better than that. It was kind of sad to watch him go through graduation, knowing we’re going to lose him.”

Not that Cochran is through with school. He’s considering pursuing an advanced degree at some point.

“That guy makes me nervous. I worry if he goes back to get his advance degrees he may take my job,” joked Pasley, who was recently honored with the 2012 Columbia College Service Award.

Pasley, like Cochran, went to college later in life. So he can appreciate the demands on Cochran’s time.

“I don’t know he does it, with his job, his family,” Pasley said. “But that’s the kind of student he is. It’s impressive what he’s done.”

Besides his coursework, Cochran was active in campus life in other ways.

He served on a committee with the Columbia College Alumni Association designed to define the core value of honor for CCAA.

Which is how he has tried to conduct himself in his role as county assessor.

“It’s my job to give people honest answers about why their assessment is going up or down,” Cochran said. “I think that’s the job of a public servant. If you do that, I think people will be happy they put you in there. They’ll feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.”

Cochran – along with Tracy Robinett, an officer with the Osage Beach Police Department – was awarded the Phil Davis Scholarship, named for a former student, in 2011 for his willingness to help fellow students and his outstanding performance in the classroom.

“He was always there for other students,” Pasley said of Cochran. “He was always one of those students who would go that extra mile. That’s above and beyond the call of duty. He’s quite an individual. All around, he’s just a great guy and great example for the other students.”

Being an elected official is demanding enough, but Cochran had the added demands of taking a full load of college classes and having a family – he and his wife have a daughter who will be a freshman in high school.

But it was worth it.

 “If you want something in life, you will work toward it,” he said.

For Cochran, the hard work and effort have paid off.

 “I’m a good example of never giving up on your dreams,” he said. “It’s never too late.”

He has the degree to prove it.