The threads connecting Audrey Ballou’s life seemed disjointed at first: A love of the outdoors, the drive of a student athlete, an undergraduate degree in parks and recreation.
But over time, experiences began to weave together and a pattern emerged. A natural resources law class sparked an interest in legal studies, but the tuition was a heavy burden to carry. Then Ballou saw a flier for the National Needs Graduate and Postgraduate Fellowship Grants program offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The idea, says Ballou, was intriguing. Pieces began to fall into place.
“Through our tribe we have college advisors, and they send us things when there’s an opportunity. The flier said they were looking for native people or those who wanted to work with native people to give them good experience in forestry,” says Ballou, who grew up in the Cherokee Nation and is of the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes of Oklahoma. The flier connected her with Jacek Siry, Warnell’s Stuckey Professor in Forest Economics and Taxation in the UGA Harley Langdale Jr. Center for Forest Business who has been working with recently retired center director Bob Izlar to recruit a more diverse pool of students into the forest business program.
The USDA grants are helping—and making an impact. It’s opened doors for students like Ballou who might not have thought a graduate degree in forest business was possible—or even existed.
“My dad was an outdoorsman and he taught me a lot of things, and I wanted to work for a tribe to better their economy through natural resources,” she says. “I didn’t think that job was possible. Coming into Warnell, it’s made that way more of a reality. Now, I know I can work for a tribe and we can utilize timberlands and further our economy.”
Over the past few years, the Langdale Center has secured a series of USDA grants, all aimed at increasing diversity in the workforce. The goal is to fill what the USDA describes as a national need for women and people of color in the forestry industry. And, as the leading program in forest business education, faculty saw an opportunity to connect the grants with students who could benefit from the program.
“We continue to establish the Langdale Center’s leadership in a lot of different areas—forest business education, individual investor education, outreach and service—and we have always had a diverse student body with many foreign students,” says Izlar. “This program underscores the national needs and recognizes that. With the grants we’ve gotten for the first set of forest business master’s and Ph.D. students, and more recently for Native American students, within the world that we work in, nobody else is doing this. But we are.”
While other graduate-level programs across the country may incorporate some business courses into their programs, none offers the integration to the extent that UGA’s forest business program does thanks to a partnership with the Terry College of Business. Now, with the opportunities afforded through the USDA fellowship programs, faculty can focus on recruiting students from underserved communities.
But this type of recruitment takes time. For example, Siry has been working with the Intertribal Timber Council for years and recently gained the Council’s endorsement for the program—a key step to getting the word out among potential students with Native American heritage. Faculty also promote the program at the biannual Timberland Investment Conference, and revenue from that event helps fund recruitment trips.
Along the way, faculty are connecting with college and tribal counselors, hoping to make a connection with potential students. If the students can just find their way to Warnell, doors begin to open once they graduate.
Thanks to the grant programs, students who might not have been able to consider a master’s program can now access a graduate degree. This includes master’s student Uriaha Bauer, a first-generation college student who found the forest business program as an undergraduate at Colorado State University. Inspired by dendrology and field measurements classes, he started looking into graduate programs focused on forestry.
The seeds planted by Siry and others began to take root.
“I came across a web page and found Dr. Siry. I reached out, for more information about the program and started building my application over the summer,” says Bauer. “It was a lot of work, and on my birthday I found out I got accepted and it was one of the best feelings ever because I had worked so hard.”
The opportunity to learn about Southeast forests was one of the most exciting aspects, says Bauer: “That’s where forestry is happening in the U.S.,” he adds—and as he works on lining up a summer internship, he notes the value in the business classes he’s been able to take along with forestry-related courses.
It’s opening up opportunities that Bauer never thought existed before.
“It’s good knowledge to have,” he says. “I’m learning a lot just in terms of advanced management, and I think working in conservation or government jobs would definitely benefit from the skills I’m getting from this program.”
The Langdale Center’s coursework also helped recent Ph.D. graduate Rocio Gutierrez (PHD ’20) fine-tune her career opportunities. A native of Colombia, she realized as an undergraduate student in her home country that she wanted to work to connect forestry and the environment with communities, whether through education or policy. She eventually moved to the United States and worked for a nonprofit to create community-connected environmental programs.
After the birth of her daughter, Gutierrez grew restless and began applying for jobs and scholarships. She knew there was more she could do, and professor Pete Bettinger made the connection. “And I will always be thankful for having the opportunity to make my dream of finishing a Ph.D. come true” says Gutierrez, who received a USDA grant through the Empowerment of Modern Scientists in Forest Economics, Planning and Management. It was one of several secured by Warnell professor Bin Mei.
“My course work has provided me with the tools to address forest planning and management issues more efficiently. In addition, through my research, which focuses on investigating how sustainability is communicated in forest plans, I have been able to clearly connect my interest in extension and outreach with forest planning and public policy,” she adds. “My hope is to continue into this research field and contribute toward a better public understanding of environmental issues while also encouraging stakeholders to actively participate in the decision-making process.”
Gutierrez is starting a job with the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and it’s an opportunity in an industry where, as a woman, it was difficult to gain a foothold. But as forestry becomes more dynamic and enters more communities, it requires a broader range of voices to speak for it. Traditionally underrepresented groups are vital as the industry connects with a larger group of stakeholders. “If we want to understand sustainability, we need to work with all of those parts together,” says Gutierrez.
Ballou agrees. While she’s gotten used to sometimes being the only woman in the room, she also understands that the industry is changing, and that her voice matters. She’s intrigued by the idea of staying in the South and working in the private sector, but she also likes the idea of working for a tribe where she can have an impact through managing natural resources.
“I’ve always really liked the outdoors, but being able to do this has really changed my perspective on it,” she says. “Maybe when I’m older I might move closer to home to be near my family. But right now, I’m open to going anywhere.”