As a graduate student at Georgia State University, Eric Cochling interned at the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO), a nonprofit research and educational organization that aims to remove barriers to opportunity for Georgians. Now, 16 years later, he is its executive vice president.
Cochling began his joint Juris Doctor and master’s in public administration degree after graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in political science in 1997. He finished in three short years.
“My prospects for going to college weren’t that great, given my family history,” Cochling says. “I was the first in my family to go to college, and graduate school didn’t seem possible because of the expense. The joint degree offered by GSU was an answer to a prayer. It offered the degrees I wanted to pursue and was financially within reach.
“My goal always had been to get through school without accumulating too much debt. Working as a research assistant while I was a student allowed me to do that. I took a heavy academic load, which was tough, but the school was flexible in helping me stay on my plan, while helping me avoid overload.”
Along with his internship at the Georgia Center for Opportunity and graduate research assistantship, Cochling also spent time working for a state legislator, an opportunity he said wouldn’t have been possible without Georgia State’s proximity to the state capitol. He also had an internship in a Washington, D.C., think-tank.
After graduating from Georgia State, Cochling worked in private practice for eight years, both in his own firm and with a mid-sized Atlanta firm. While practicing law, Cochling focused on real estate, contract drafting, corporate firms and estate administration and litigation. However, he says he always knew he wanted to be in the public policy arena, working on issues related to poverty and healthy families.
“Even while I was in private practice, I maintained relationships with people here at GCO,” Cochling says. “Working in the public policy world has always been in my blood, and I always wanted to get back into it.”
He’s now been back at GCO for eight years. When he returned, he focused on developing the nonprofit’s public policy arm. However, in recent years he has moved into managing larger and larger aspects of the organization’s work.
The GCO’s mission is to increase opportunity and quality of life for all Georgians. It helps people achieve major life milestones by researching and developing community-based solutions and policy recommendations surrounding foster care and adoption, human trafficking, criminal justice reform and educational reform. It also consults with other nonprofit organizations to ensure they are effectively implementing their programs. The organization impacts communities statewide with an annual budget of nearly two million dollars.
The organization’s recent efforts and success in criminal justice reform are a direct reflection of the work of Cochling and his team.
“The changes we’ve advocated for in criminal justice reform will help returning citizens find jobs, which is critical to reducing recidivism,” he says. “This includes things like not suspending the driver’s licenses of ex-offenders who have a conviction for a drug offense, along with promoting professional and vocational certifications for ex-offenders, the very kinds of jobs they’d be able to do or learn in prison.”
Cochling says his joint Georgia State M.P.A./law degree prepared him well for the work he does.
“The joint degree program itself prepares you in a different way. I might be a rare case of someone who actually works in the perfect sweet spot of all of my degrees. Getting my M.P.A. gave me the perspective of how policy actually works in government. It prepared me uniquely for where I am.
“I have a ton of gratitude to Georgia State for giving me the chance to be there. It was a terrific experience.”