Michelle Cole is an urban forestry veteran. She has worked for several organizations, including the Alabama Forestry Commission as an outreach forester, in the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, and even owned her own forestry consulting business. In 2004, Michelle was ready for a different career path. Dr. Brenda Allen, extension specialist and assistant professor at Auburn University, saw Michelle’s potential and began to include her in several boards and organizations. Michelle is currently an academic advisor at Auburn University in Alabama, advising students in the natural resources and forestry fields.
“I help advise the forestry and natural resources students, and I pour all my years of experience [into them],” Michelle says. “[I love] listening to them tell me what they want to do and finding what’s right for them to get them to where they want to go.”
During her tenure, Michelle has started two programs that help raise awareness about the forestry field. In 2019, Touchdown for Trees planted a tree for every touchdown Auburn scored during their football season. Hoops for Trees is a tree-planting program that brought the university’s School of Forestry organizations together to play a game of TREES, a play on the basketball game HORSE. Teams were divided by each organization, and whoever missed a shot had to plant a tree.
Michelle also concentrates on diversity in forestry. She is the chapter advisor for Minorities in Agriculture and Natural Resource Related Sciences (MANRRS) at Auburn University. She also started a Jr. MANRRS program at Auburn, which focuses on cultivating interest in these fields at the 7 - 12 grade level.
“It’s a professional development organization, but it’s also a safe place where they’re growing the next generation of minority leaders in forestry and agriculture,” Michelle says. “I’m trying to grow the next generation of scientists.”
That next generation of scientists, Michelle says, should be communicative, focused, and self-aware. Her advice? “You have to love urban forestry and everything that comes with it,” she says. “Be proud of what you do, adapt to change, and keep growing. Branch out and think outside your bark.”
Branching out is what Michelle hopes the urban forestry industry as a whole will do. “[I want to see the urban forestry industry] recruit and develop a team with diverse skills and backgrounds,” she says. “And to give those team members the tools and space they can work in.” Michelle says giving that space to a diverse group of people can grow their leadership potential in what often feels like an “underdog” field.
“Trees are at the bottom [of most community agendas], and we know,” she says. “But we just have to stay grounded and never stop growing.”
This profile is the fourth of DRG’s series that highlights leaders in urban forestry, sharing stories from their experiences in the industry, and how they spread their passion for trees.