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When Kelvin Cochran first embarked on his college career in 1981, little did he know that four years of study would take nearly two decades to complete. The former U.S. Fire Administrator and current Atlanta, GA, Fire Rescue Department chief’s college career – robust at first – sputtered to a halt.
“I started out strong,” Cochran said. “I was focused…I was going to college at Louisiana Tech University to become an architect. In the first two quarters, I was doing well. And then I realized I didn’t have enough mathematics in high school to manage the math requirements of the program. Second, I lost my focus – I started partying and having a good time rather than working on my classes. I found myself on academic probation the following year.”
But a mentor, maturity and beginning a family gave Cochran a new sense of urgency. “There was a retired chief training officer by name of George Carney, who was then working at General Motors in Shreveport,” Cochran said. “He asked me one day what I had planned for my next career move. At the time, I was assistant chief of training. I told him I was planning to succeed the current chief of training, in about five years. He told me that my vision was too low and that I needed to be planning to be the fire chief of the department. He asked me if I had a college degree, and I said no. He said I needed to get that right away because the future will be here before I know it.”
Cochran said this nudge by the well-respected chief provided a sense of urgency in pursuing a bachelor’s degree. He attended Wiley College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in organizational management in 1999, the same year he was appointed Shreveport’s fire chief. In just a few years, his expanded vision gained clarity. “Had I not had my bachelor’s degree, I would not have been appointed fire chief…because of the competition for the job,” he said. “So you can say I achieved my bachelor’s degree just in the nick of time.”
Yet Cochran’s desire to move his professional career to a higher level continued to propel him into an advanced degree.
“I had developed a hunger for higher education, but it was difficult because I was extremely busy with my children, who were in high school,” he said. “I had all the excuses in the world not to go back to college, but I went back to Louisiana Tech University and pursued a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology. Because of my workload and family commitments, I took one course per quarter; it took me two years, but I completed the degree. I vindicated myself...That was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment for me.”
Matt McNabb, a corporal at Oklahoma City, OK, Fire Department, became a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force after high school. Because of his veteran’s benefits and an educational partnership with the University of Maryland, he started early on his bachelor’s degree. “I could see at that point that a lot of firefighters did not have advanced education,” McNabb said. “I started to see where other people – I won’t say looked down on them – but some perceived us as just the muscle out there…and not educated. I didn’t agree with that.”
McNabb found his enthusiasm tempered by his peers’ reaction.
“About 60% gave me a hard time for a variety of reasons – like ‘So, are you going to be the next chief?’ And the other 40% liked the idea and wanted some advice on how to attend college,” he said. “Those with more years in the fire service, especially higher-ranking personnel, provided less support, while those on the other end of the spectrum – the newer generation – were more open about it and supportive.”
McNabb continued to excel academically as his fire career moved into the public sector. He recently completed a master’s degree in fire and emergency management administration at Oklahoma State University.