Staff: James Coker

James Coker knows that not much is needed to get someone hooked on East Carolina University.

“The community of ECU to me is just great,” said Coker, the assistant dean of graduate admissions and enrollment management. “I love when you walk in town or go to an event, and you see someone and their family and the young kids are wearing their Pirate gear. It always comes back to family and bleeding that purple and gold. It’s an environment I enjoy so much and one of the reasons I really wanted to be at ECU.”

Coker is entering his 11th year at ECU, moving into his new role at the Graduate School as an interim in 2021 before becoming permanent in October. He said his biggest goal is to help prospective graduate students understand the ECU community and the many options that are available to them.

James Coker sits with his wife, Dr. Nicole Caswell, associate professor in the English Department, and their 1-year-old daughter, Mackenzie Jade.

James Coker sits with his wife, Dr. Nicole Caswell, associate professor in the English Department, and their 1-year-old daughter, Mackenzie Jade. (Contributed photo)

“I want to help them build a connection to their programs, but also to ECU as a whole and the community,” Coker said. “… I just think we have a lot at the graduate level, and so I really want to bring that to the forefront and make that a powerful part of the institution.”

He said many graduate students are looking for online opportunities, something at which ECU excels. He points out Newsweek rankings that show ECU as No. 1 in the state and sixth in the nation for online education.

“We’ve been a leader in online education for years, before it became a big thing for brick-and-mortar institutions,” Coker said. “It’s a unique opportunity for us to continue to provide that traditional college experience while also being flexible to the needs of prospective students.”

He said people should not be nervous or scared about applying to graduate school.

“What we can do for those students who might find grad school intimidating is really highlight the resources that ECU as a whole has to offer, highlight our connections to the community, that family atmosphere, and help those students feel as comfortable as possible, while also on the admissions side of it, making the application process as smooth as possible, giving them that excellent customer service,” Coker said. “When you do that, a lot of times those nerves will take a backseat.”

His advice to prospective students is to contact the programs in which they are interested and the Graduate School office early in the process.

“Sometimes students are not sure if they’re going to be eligible, so they wait and wait and wait and then they apply,” he said. “The advice I give is to contact the program and do the research early because then you’ll get that level of comfort of knowing what you need to do to make a plan. We also want students to engage with the graduate admissions office to be a resource to help talk students through the process.”

Coker said when students contact the office, they’ll get that same sense of family and community that he received when he started working there in 2021.

“When I came over to the Graduate School, I saw how well they work together,” he said. “Everyone is willing to pick up the slack and willing to chip in and help, but also, everyone is relatable. We can have conversations and we can laugh, and that just makes you feel at home.”

Speaking of home, Coker has 1-year-old Mackenzie Jade to greet him each night. He is married to Dr. Nicole Caswell, associate professor in the English department and director of the University Writing Center and Writing Mentor Program.

“They’re who I am. They have made my life amazing,” he said.

When not working at ECU, Coker officiates high school football games.

“I love it because I get to stay connected to a game I played and I love, and I also get to help the kids,” he said. “As a referee, you don’t coach the players, but we can help keep the game safe. I love football with a passion, and I know there are a lot of opinions and thoughts about the safety of the game, and as officials, we have a unique role to help keep the game safe and keep it under control. But seeing these kids out there playing with passion and having a good time, there’s just nothing like it.”

He’s also a member of the Raleigh chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers and Troopers Motorcycle Club, honoring his brother Isiah, who died in 2016.

“Growing up, my dad always had this dream that he would have a motorcycle and all his boys would all have motorcycles and we would ride together,” Coker said. “We didn’t get to experience that because we went in different directions, but while I was living in Pennsylvania, the motorcycle class was free, and I decided I was going to take it. Of course, I got hooked.”

Coker grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He credits his parents, James and Cindy, and older siblings Erica, Jason and Chris for guidance in his personal and professional life. He calls Isiah his “guardian angel” and someone who “keeps a fire burning inside me that drives me to help others and be there for others who need it most.”

He knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without help.

“There have been a lot of people I’ve worked with along the way, here at ECU and other institutions, and I wouldn’t be here without them,” Coker said. “I have this philosophy that we’ve got to be better today than we were yesterday because we can always improve. You can learn from a lot of negatives and a lot of challenges. You never know what challenges you’re going to be faced with.

“I started my doctorate in 2016, and two weeks into it, my brother passed away. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to finish, but I finished. You never know when the hurdles are going to come, but every day you have to say you’re going to be better than you were yesterday. You’re going to continue to be better and improve, and that’s something I really hold near and dear to me because sometimes it is a day-to-day challenge, and there are a lot of people out there struggling with those day-to-day challenges, so be better today than you were yesterday.”


Name: James L. Coker

Title: Assistant dean of graduate admissions and enrollment management

Hometown: Virginia Beach, Virginia

Colleges attended and degrees: Shenandoah University, Bachelor of Arts in mass communications and Master of Science in education administration; East Carolina University, Doctor of Education in educational leadership


Years working at ECU: I’m finishing my 10th year. January 2023 starts year 11.

What I do at ECU: I assist prospective students with the application to enrollment process and our graduate programs with recruitment initiatives.

What I love about ECU: ECU is really a family within the community. I love that I can go anywhere and find the connection and passion about the Pirates! I will never forget the first time I pulled into Greenville back in 2013, and I saw all the purple and gold. I knew the community had support for ECU, and that encourages me to want to give back every day.

What advice do you give to students? I learned a phrase in admissions a long time ago: It’s not where you get in. It’s about where you fit in. That is the core of the advice I give to students. Sometimes a large school like ECU may seem overwhelming, but I encourage them to look at it from a different perspective. I want students to feel like they belong not just at ECU, but in Greenville as well.


What do you like to do when not working?  My time outside of work is filled with three things: being a high school football referee, riding my motorcycle as a member of the Buffalo Soldiers and Troopers Motorcycle Club — Raleigh Chapter, and laying on the floor playing with my daughter, Mackenzie. Playing with Mackenzie is definitely my most favorite though!

Last thing I watched on TV: I’m really into the new “Quantum Leap” series, “Abbot Elementary” and “Ghosts.” I alternate between those when I have time.

First job: I think my first real job was working at Chick-fil-A in high school.

Guilty pleasure: Long rides on my motorcycle.

Favorite meal: Chicken wings! The real ones, not those “boneless” wings (aka nuggets).

One thing most people don’t know about me: I enjoy learning about history and wildlife through documentaries. I studied Latin in middle school and high school, which helped ignite a love of world history. I was also a huge fan of dinosaurs and whales as a kid — I mean, who wasn’t — and to this day, I’ll put on a Natural Geographic series and be entranced in it.