In education, May is a time of profound transition. As students eagerly anticipate the start of summer break or the culmination of their academic journeys, educators and those who support them often find themselves at a crossroads. They may teach a new subject next school year or change schools. A few may retire after a lifetime of service. Among those retiring this year are two state council executive directors: Colby Cochran from the North Carolina Association of Student Councils (NCASC), and Terri Johnson from the Missouri Association of Student Councils (MASC). We contacted them to discuss what they’ve learned and their profound impact on the lives of countless student council leaders.

How did you get involved in student council?

Terri Johnson, left, and Colby Cochran at the 2023 VISION Conference in their final year as state student council association executive directors. Photo courtesy of Terri Johnson.

Cochran: I started out in 1965 as a seventh grader elected vice president of my junior high student council, and I’ve been working with councils ever since. My junior high adviser moved with me to high school. In college, I volunteered with my state association, and after serving as an adviser for a decade it was only logical for me to take over when our executive director passed away. I continued in that role for the past 40 years leading our state association. I’m probably the last of the dinosaurs. Working with councils for so long changes you. By nature, I’m an introvert, and this career made me an extrovert. In seventh grade, I practiced that little two-page speech I gave when I was running for office, I don’t know how many times. Now I never use a script. Just tell me who I’m speaking to and I’m ready.

Johnson: Colby and I have been such good friends all these years because our back stories are so similar. When I was a kid, of course I was in student council, and I often tell my students a story about how an older student invited me to come and make posters for an event. Of course, it was cool to be invited by someone who was older than I was, but I don’t know how else I would have gotten involved. And when I became a student council adviser, it was purely because the new principal at my school said, “Go find out what the kids in the art room are doing.” I went there and it was the student council. I sat with them and chatted with them because I had that experience from high school, and when I came out, my principal said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, you’re the student council adviser.”

Years later, my mentor encouraged me to apply to be the MASC executive director. It was the best decision I ever made. I always use this as a leadership lesson with kids and with advisers. It’s so important to invite people to be a part of something and to help them see what their gifts are.

What are you most proud of achieving during your tenure?

Johnson: When I became state director, we had a little over 100 member schools. As I’m leaving, we’re at almost 300. Going to events and meeting people like Colby ignited the fire in me to bring the magic of student council to more schools. During national conferences, I met other state directors who had huge associations and lots of member schools. I just kept coming home and saying to our people, “We can do this. We can invite people to be a part of what we’re doing.” So, we grew and grew. I like to think that Missouri is one of the powerhouse states when we attend national conferences.

Cochran: I’m proud to have worked with amazing mentors, and together we accomplished so much for students and advisers. I wish Terri could have met these two ladies who taught me so much. They established trust, strove for excellence, and truly cared about people. To tell you one quick story, after spending the one year as a junior counselor I was allowed during college, I wanted to continue my work with the state association. So, I begged. I said, “Miss Bounds, let me stay. I will come sweep the stage, I’ll bring you lunch, I’ll paperclip things together.” I was trying to find any hook to continue. Six months later, she called me and said, “Colby, you live close by, I want you to start a junior council workshop.” And that kicked off our incredible growth. My task was to take the foundation they had laid and expand it.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self starting out in this role?

Cochran: Don’t fret over the small stuff. It was always about people. The people-to-people experience makes it real. And people have to know you care. That’s what makes this all worthwhile.

Johnson: That’s right. The most important thing is the relationships. That’s the hardest part of walking away. The friendships you have and the relationships you built are so important. That’s the bottom line for student council. We teach kids about leadership, and we teach kids about doing good, but all that happens because of the relationships.

Want to expand your network with student councils? Sign up to learn about the 2025 National Student Council Conference.

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