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Noelle Cockett: At the helm of Utah’s land-grant university

Noelle CockettThe night Noelle Cockett became the first female president of Utah State University, someone asked her what it felt like. Cockett says she wasn’t thinking that clearly at the time but later realized she correctly answered the question. “It’s not so much that I’m the female president of USU—the specialness is that I’m the first.”

There’s no doubt that she’s different than former USU presidents.

“But I don’t know if that’s because I’m a female or because I’m Noelle,” she says.

Cockett says she talks quite a bit. She listens to how people feel. It’s common for her to compliment someone on their haircut or tell them she likes their shoes. “I will do that to anybody. So maybe I’m a little easier to approach. I like to think that students find me easy to talk to. But again: is that because I’m Noelle or because I’m female? Don’t know.”

Overall, she wants young females to realize they can reach for what they want—and that it can happen.

Cockett started at USU 26 years ago as an assistant professor. As her academic experience grew past professorship, she held positions such as the interim dean for the School of Graduate Studies and the executive vice president. In January, she replaced former president Stan Albrecht, who spent 12 years at the helm.

“It’s an incredible honor for me. People said, ‘Did you always see yourself as a president?’ Heck no,” she says with a laugh.

Cockett says it was like she experienced the stages of grief—denial, anger, acceptance—when she heard Albrecht was stepping down. That’s because Cockett and Albrecht spent many years working together.

“Stan has always been there, whether he was a dean while I was an intern dean, or I served as dean when he was provost. So it was a freak-out. What are we going to do?”

When the job opened up, people suggested she apply. Cockett’s initially reacted by saying she couldn’t follow someone like Albrecht. But once she started the interview process, she stopped saying, “Can I do it?” and started saying, “How would I do it?” Eventually, her excitement grew and she knew being president was an incredible honor and responsibility.

“I just hope I don’t screw it up too much,” she laughs.

Although Cockett didn’t graduate from USU, she’s lived in Cache Valley long enough to notice how USU impacts the students and community. No one is a number, she says. No one is a faceless student. Cockett truly believes USU’s heart comes from caring about the individual.

“I think back to all the visitors I’ve had on campus, and lots of people will come [to me] and say, ‘Everyone is so nice at USU,’” she says. “I think ‘nice’ is a great attribute, and I think it demonstrates how much we care.”

Cockett considers herself a “fix-it” person, something she hopes to bring to her new role. When a process isn’t working, her personal agenda is to explore the process and make it more effective. Creating better products goes into one of the top lessons she learned from Albrecht: More than anything, a grounded president will care about the institution and all the people it touches.

“It’s something that I saw in him,” she says. “We are stewards of this incredible responsibility to make the university better. We are the ones who make it right or wrong.”