Joe Cockrell: Taking His Talents To The West Coast

By Steffi S. Lee ‘16

Simpson College students sometimes find success at Simpson in unexpected ways.

For Joe Cockrell ’97, it was having a Simpson alumnus drive him from his hometown of Burlington to Indianola.

Eileen Velharticky Larance ’87 was Cockrell’s speech and debate teacher in high school. She was so adamant that he would succeed on Simpson’s campus that she drove him there.

“She managed to get me a one-on-one audition with Jennifer Ross Nostrala in the theatre department and they gave me a scholarship,” he said. “It was the theatre scholarship that brought me to Simpson.”

Cockrell, a lifetime Hawkeye fan, had originally planned to attend the University of Iowa after high school.

“I had a dorm picked out and everything,” he recalls.

Now Cockrell currently works in one of the top media markets in the nation as the director of public relations for West Coast University and American Career College in Orange County, Calif. He says his liberal arts education is what makes him successful as a communications professional.

Like many Simpson students, Cockrell’s career path changed once he arrived on campus. He knew he loved acting, but crafting a career from that field would be difficult. Taking full advantage of the liberal arts curriculum and the professional resources Simpson had to offer, Cockrell spoke to Brian Steffen, department chair of communication and media studies.

“I was on the school paper,” Cockrell said. “When I got to Simpson, I worked for the Indianola Record-Herald as a photographer. They said, ‘Why don’t you major in journalism or communications,’ and I said ‘OK’. Then Brian became my permanent adviser.”

Even as a freshman, Cockrell already started planning his path to his best job. He became a communication studies and performing arts double major. But in addition to carrying two majors, he was involved in numerous activities.

“I remember serving on The Simpsonian before actually taking my news writing class,” Cockrell said. “I think that The Simpsonian was a fantastic experience. I shot photos, but I also wrote a column. When I was student body president, I wrote a column every month about what was going on. The older students on The Simpsonian really helped the younger students become better writers.”

Cockrell was also vice president and head of the student senate, a sports reporter for the Indianola Record-Herald and president of Kappa Theta Psi.

“I was at just about every high school sporting event in Warren County on Friday nights,” he said.

And Cockrell also was part of a groundbreaking movement for both Simpson College and its communications department. He was on the inaugural staff and the first station manager for KSTM, the college’s radio station.

“It was difficult to get students interested at first,” he said. “We had this really antiquated equipment to cover sporting events.”

The station’s equipment may have been outdated, but Cockrell put his liberal arts education to work. Thinking outside of the box is what keeps KSTM alive until this day.

“We slowly and eventually got sponsorships,” Cockrell said. “I remember how Appletree Inn was one of the first sponsors. It was on top of Brenton Student Center and I had an art student who did the logo for KSTM.”

Cockrell grew as a media student by taking advantage of Simpson’s location, interning at WHO-HD Channel 13 and KDSM Fox 17. Both are stations located in Des Moines.

“The hallmark of a Simpson education is what you experience outside of the classroom,” he said. “I got offered a job at WHO in early spring of my senior year. I couldn’t start full time yet, so what we did for my May Term was a formal internship.”

He worked in television news for five years and obtained a master’s degree through Marquette University.

The skills that Cockrell learned as a Simpson are those he uses today, such as communicating with professionals in the media industry and writing effectively. The former journalist now works as a public relations professional for higher education. He wanted to take his journalism expertise into public relations to make sure both sides understood each other.

Even though the sunshine and his work keep him busy, he always credits Simpson for helping him carve his successful lifestyle.

“I think if anything, when I think about my Simpson Experience, I think it was the very personal, very close relationships with faculty,” Cockrell said. “There’s the opportunity to get involved with so many different things. All of those things are things I still carry with me now in my role today.”

Attending Simpson and currently working in higher education taught Cockrell something he believes all students should understand: Simpson is the right college for students because you learn a little about a lot of things.

“I feel like your education dollars go a lot farther at Simpson,” he said. “What you get at Simpson is far and above a bigger state school. I think a liberal arts education, the framework for a Simpson College education, it’s to teach you about the world and how to be an active community participant.”

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