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A woman stands at a podium smiling

Michelle Cole advises students in forestry and environmental conservation and management within the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment.

Michelle Cole, an academic administrator for the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment (CFWE), wasn’t sure how long her career at Auburn University would last when she first started in 2005.

Growing up in Tallassee, Alabama, merely 40 minutes away from campus, she believes fate brought and kept her in Auburn after marrying and settling back in her hometown in 1997. Initially, she struggled to find her place here as one of the few minority academic professionals in the school.

“When I began working at Auburn, there was only one other Black woman here in the urban forestry field, Brenda Allen, who would eventually become my mentor, and I remember how she’d tell me she wasn’t going to be here much longer — she was going to retire soon,” Cole said.

“And though she stayed longer than either of us thought she would — retiring in 2018 — I would always say to her ‘Don’t leave yet, don’t go,’ because I didn’t think I could do [the job] without her.”

Nineteen years later, Cole remains in CFWE with a long list of achievements, various job descriptions tacked to her title and enough experience to jam-pack her LinkedIn profile. Along with academic advising, she also manages the Auburn chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), is on the college’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee and was the outreach director for the Center for Environmental Studies at the Urban-Rural Interface (CESURI) throughout its duration.

Cole’s reason to persevere when her many responsibilities threaten to overwhelm her is her students — those within her care relying heavily on her expertise and guidance. The work she does, she does it all for them.

“The students keep me motivated,” Cole said. “I love them, and I love my job. I love guiding them and helping each student find their way. That’s the best part — getting students to where they want to go, the next level of their careers — that’s what I love most about my job.

“And yes, sometimes it’s hard to keep going, but you have to push through. You have to continue to write those grants, to do those programs. Do it for the students. They need us. Sometimes we’re the only voice they hear, the only influence they have. So, we have to stay strong for them, so they know they can depend on us.”

A woman stands with an award and two family members

Cole — shown here on stage with Janaia Madden (right) and Marquez Wortham — was nominated for the Jesse C. Thompson Advisor of the Year presented by MANRRS by Auburn students Sheniqua Glover and Makeda Nurradin. Cole won the award in March.

MANRRS Advisor of the Year

When Allen retired in 2018, Cole worked with alumnus Ken Day and CFWE's Office of Advancement to establish the MANRRS Endowed Fund for Excellence in honor of Allen. This fund provides sustaining support for the core missions of Auburn's MANRRS chapter. 

"The MANRRS Endowed Fund for Excellence, the 2015 African American Alumni Endowed Scholarship and the 2022 Hispanic Alumni Endowed Scholarship collectively support increasing the level of diversity in natural resources and related sciences at Auburn University and in the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment," said Day.

Because of her resilience and dedication to making an impact on those around her, Cole’s students nominated her for the Jesse C. Thompson Advisor of the Year presented by MANRRS, an award she won earlier this year in March. This honor is given annually to a professional MANRRS advisor who has shown evidence of noteworthy contributions to their local MANRRS chapter and national community through professional development, career training and leadership development of their members.

“It was the last night of the MANRRS conference at the All-Black Gala Dinner,” Cole said. “I was sitting at the table with my students, taking pictures, and they were announcing all of the contest and award winners. Soon, it became time for Advisor of the Year. I remember wondering who the nominees were for this year. They called six names and one of them was mine.

"I was honored to even be considered. Then, it was announced that Michelle Cole from Auburn University was the Advisor of the Year winner, and the [Auburn] tables went crazy. I was shocked — I couldn’t move. A young man escorted me to the stage, and I had to give an impromptu speech in front of 1,500 people. I was speechless, I am never speechless.”

From starting her career as an extension specialist in urban forestry unsure of her future at Auburn, to now winning an award speaking to her success as an educator and mentor, there is no debate that she has earned this recognition. However, she gives all the credit to her students for their appreciation of her role and simply seeing her.

“To me, this is the highest award that an advisor can get — to have students that think enough of me to feel ‘Mrs. Cole deserves Advisor of the Year,’” Cole said. “It makes me feel like I’ve done something right, that I impacted their lives in such a way they feel I deserve this honor.”

A woman sits in a chair on a stage surrounded by potted plants

From starting her career as an extension specialist in urban forestry unsure of her future at Auburn, to now winning an award speaking to her success as an educator and mentor, there is no debate that she has earned this recognition.

Outreach in her community

Originally attending college for accounting, Cole graduated from Alabama A&M University in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science in forest management, after taking an Introduction to Forestry class, suggested to her by her college mentor Ron Smith, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service. She received her master’s in adult education at Auburn in 2010 and joined the Auburn Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.

Cole continues her outreach work within her hometown by initiating programs at churches and local schools. One such program was the “College and Career Day” she hosted at Flat Rock Missionary Baptist Church. Cole and her husband brought local Alabama college recruiters to Tallassee, such as Alabama State University, Tuskegee University, Auburn University and her alma mater, Alabama A&M.

“We asked every college we could to attend,” Cole said. “If they were in Alabama, they were at our church that day. We just wanted the students in Tallassee to know that college was possible for them. We wanted those kids to know that college is an option and there are multiple choices available for them.”

Unfortunately, the event hasn’t been held since being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Cole found other ways to continue introducing career preparation to local high school students by going into the schools and giving the students mock interviews, informing them on the do’s and don’ts of approaching potential employers and even reviewing their resumes, which their teacher then takes as an actual grade for their high school classes.

Cole often brings other people and companies along with her that are active in the community and have a vested interest in the youth of Tallassee to provide as much information to the students as possible, including Alabama Power and Sizemore & Sizemore, the forestry consulting company that gave Cole her start in her field after graduating. For students interested in enlisting after graduation, she invites people with military careers and experience to speak with the students as well.

“I believe in community,” she said. “If you’re going to live in a community, why not do your part as a community member? So, I like giving back to the students and schools in mine.”

“All three of my children went through the Tallassee school system, as did I, from elementary school to high school. As a parent, I always wanted to be involved in every way I could regarding their education. Because of my job at Auburn University, these programs felt like the perfect way to support the kids in my community, and it’s well-needed.”

Cole applies much of the teaching philosophy she uses to advise her students at Auburn to everyone she helps within her community. She even breaks it down into a short, relatable acronym, easy enough for anyone to remember.

“There is something I tell my students all the time,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘Do you know what LOL is?’ and they’ll say, ‘Of course I do.’ However, I tell them my meaning of LOL is different — listen, observe and learn.

“You must be able to listen to people and hear what they are saying. Observe them and learn from them.”

Special national appointment

 Outside of community service and her involvement with MANRRS, Cole was recently appointed to the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council (NUCFAC). NUCFAC is a Congressionally designated advisory council to the Secretary of Agriculture on urban forestry and related issues. NUCFAC was created to bring together the wide variety of voices raised about a common concern: the present health and future preservation of American urban forests.

“An appointment to NUCFAC is one of the highest positions you can achieve within an urban forestry career,” Cole said. “With this role, I’m able to use my voice to inform people about urban forestry on a national level — to help people make decisions about their environment. My mentor, Brenda Allen, was a member of NUCFAC while she was here at Auburn. She would tell me about these great projects they were doing, and I would think, ‘Oh yeah, I would love to be a part of that’ and had been trying for a couple of years since.

“The day I opened the email letting me know I’d finally done it, I felt like crying. It felt like I finally had a voice and a platform to use that voice, the things I learned at Alabama A&M, the things I teach my students here at Auburn — everything I had learned and done — my entire career had prepared me for this moment.”

Within her position in NUCFAC, Cole hopes to use her training and expertise to inform some of the smaller cities in Alabama and the rest of the country about crucial news and information regarding urban and community forestry.

“I represent the smaller cities associated with NUCFAC,” she said. “I make sure when people are asking about small towns and cities, what they need and where are they regarding urban forestry, that my voice is heard. I live in a small town and understand that these cities need someone advocating for them.

“So, any time there’s a strategic planning meeting, guess who’s going to be at that meeting? Every time a new grant becomes available, I want to make sure that the smaller cities throughout have access to that information so that they can apply also.”

Cole's role on the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council showcases the impact of civic engagement for CFWE students at Auburn. Her leadership and dedication to service highlight the importance of active and intentional civic participation and how it’s able to shape the future of environmental and forestry initiatives.

Cole inspires students to affect positive change within their communities, fields of study and in every area of their lives by doing so herself and leading by example.

Cole has worked closely with alumnus Kenneth Day and Auburn Advancement to create several different endowed scholarship programs.

Learn more about how you can support CFWE students