In the months leading to his election, Jean Cocco campaigned on the idea of “We the Students” and epitomized his agenda as representing the student body as a whole.
“I want to leave USF something that will touch the next generation so they can be inspired to the same thing,” Cocco, a senior majoring in political science, said. “(USF) has made me who I am. If we all cared about USF, and if we all cared this much about the country and the world, life would be a better place.”
On Friday afternoon, Cocco will be inaugurated as the next student body president advocating for over 40,000 student voices.
Born in a Dominican neighborhood of New Jersey, Cocco said his childhood was modest and rooted in family. His father, Coco Cabrera, was born an albino, which made him an outcast in the Dominican Republic. Abandoned by his family, he was an orphan who slept in an abandoned junkyard car.
While campaigning in Cabrera’s town, presidential candidate Joaquin Balaguer spoke with young boys, encouraging them to pursue their dreams.
“It wasn’t his mom, it wasn’t his dad, it wasn’t family or friends,” Cocco said. “It was a politician doing his job – that’s why (politics) is so close to me.”
Cabrera went on to study journalism, moved to New York to work in Spanish media and eventually fathered Cocco.
However, he did not stick around.
On Independence Day 1997 at age 6, Cocco and his sister moved with their mother to a town outside of Jacksonville.
Cocco said he felt like a black sheep throughout most of his childhood. He was the only boy raised in a female household and was interested more in Frank Sinatra and Star Wars video games than Top 40 hits and Call of Duty.
Even though he enjoyed discussing U.S. history with his teachers, Cocco said he started making an effort to connect with his peers.
“I just wanted to get some more friends, I wanted that one friend who would call me up on the weekend and ask what I was up to,” he said. “I started trying to match my vibes with their vibes.”
Cocco said he began a habit of listening to the stories of others, even if he couldn’t relate at first. By his junior year of high school, he said everyone knew him not as Jean, but as Cocco.
In 2009, Cocco said he won his high school’s student body presidency by appealing to diverse “coalition” clubs and cliques.
“I was the black sheep, (that’s) what they considered me – the black horse,” he said.
Cocco said the first proof of political accomplishment was a Veteran’s Day lunch that he lobbied the school to hold for veterans.
“This was what my generation is supposed to be doing, this is how we appreciate a debt that we can never fully repay,” he said. “That little moment of appreciation is what will get us to the next generation – that’s real leadership.”
Leaving high school with a 97 percent approval rating, Cocco said FSU was originally his first choice until discovering his cousin would attend USF.
Cocco said he entered USF with “no hesitation” in what he wanted to accomplish. His freshmen year, he declared his major in political science, ran for Student Government (SG) Senate and walked into the office of then Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist to volunteer for his U.S. Senate campaign as an independent.
“What I admired about Crist was his independent streak. Here I am and here’s why you should vote for me regardless if I’m a (Democrat or Republican),” Cocco said. “That appealed to me as someone coming fresh into politics. It was what we needed … people before politics.”
In hopes of access to the staff and possibly Crist, Cocco frequently drove from Tampa to St. Petersburg to man the campaign phones.
Eventually, he was promoted to volunteer coordinator and slowly established a relationship with Crist.
Although Crist lost the race, Cocco said he stays in contact with him to this day.
Meanwhile in the SG Senate, Cocco said he liked being in the place where things “got done” and, for two years, intended to run for student body president with his friend in SG, Greg Berkowitz. Berkowitz would drop out only moths before the election, however.
Debating whether to “pack his bags” or “scramble for a new running mate,” Cocco said he eventually asked this year’s Homecoming King, Rhondel Whyte, to run with him over lunch.
“I connect well with people, and he acknowledges that we both have different audiences,” Whyte, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, said. “It was a pretty smart move on his part. I do have a lot of pull in different aspects of campus.”
Cocco said he chose him not because Whyte had a politician’s heart, but a genuine one.
“We both want to see (USF) get better,” Whyte said.
Cocco said a hands-on campaign united the different circles of the students to defeat the opposition.
“We won because that’s what the students wanted at the end of the day,” Cocco said.
However, a month of various campaign grievances with the intent of disqualifying Cocco followed the election.
“I’m thinking to myself ‘well this is bull’ because these grievances have no merit,” Cocco said. “If Barack Obama ever got disqualified for not saying ‘I approve this message,’ what’s the point of American democracy?”
The SG Supreme Court heard Cocco’s case appealing the grievances and agreed 4-1 that they were unfairly assessed. Though the court’s decision was appealed, the Dean for Students eventually declared Cocco president-elect once again.
“It was frustrating … a lot of stress. I lost weight and I couldn’t sleep,” Cocco said. “Was it worth it? Yeah, it will always be worth it. Holy crap, no wonder why people don’t like politics – it can get nasty.”
Cocco and Whyte will be inaugurated Friday at 2 p.m. in MSC 2708.
“It’s going be a celebration,” Cocco said. “A coming together hopefully of all people from all walks of USF. It’s a way for Student Government to bring people together.”