Q&A with Melissa Lee, development and alumni relations coordinator

Melissa Lee in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where she and her husband went hiking in 2016.

Meet Melissa Lee, who became the Odum School of Ecology’s new development and alumni relations coordinator in November.

What is your role at Ecology?

I am here to advance the incredible environmental mission at the Odum School of Ecology. By increasing philanthropic giving to the school, faculty can have more resources to create change, and our students can bear a lighter financial burden. I’m also here to keep our alumni engaged with our work and expand Ecology’s network—whether that be hiring our alumni, mentoring our students or being an advocate for ecological science. That means I look through a lot of alumni data, send lots of emails, talk to lots of people and connect our mission to new audiences, current donors and UGA fundraisers across campus. 

What people might not know about my job:

It requires more time to yourself than people expect. There is a lot of research, strategy, planning and approvals in fundraising. It’s not all talking and networking, and I am thankful for that. I am introverted despite my colorful wardrobe.

Where can we find you?

Most days, you can find me in the Ecology Building, Room 17. My office is reached from the Undergraduate Student Lounge. I have development meetings that take me to One Press Place near the Classic Center in downtown Athens, and I work directly from there on Thursdays. I do my best to reply to email quickly at [email protected]

Where did you grow up?

Tifton, Georgia. 

A woman hugs her dog on a boat, water visible behind them.
Lee boating with her dog, Hubble, along the Flint River in southwest Georgia in 2022.

Time at UGA:

Ten years! I began my career at UGA with the Terry College of Business in Atlanta. There, I was in an administrative assistant type of role working with MBA programs, Executive Education, and the corporate development officer during the Building Terry Campaign. I moved to Athens in 2015 and began working in the central Donor Relations and Stewardship office, to communicate the direct impact of student and faculty gifts and lead a collaborative group of stewardship professionals in schools, colleges and units. In stewardship, you connect with donors and share the importance of their contributions, but never ask for money directly. I learned a lot about UGA’s alumni, acknowledging gifts, giving societies, and the ins-and-outs of endowments. Everything was scaled up; for example, I was sending financial reports for nearly 4,000 endowments each year! I already enjoy the difference of being at Ecology so that I am closer to the impact of philanthropy that I care about. And, I am able to think about donor relationships in a more personal way. It is a new challenge that I am excited to take on.

Tell us about your family:

My sister and her family live in Watkinsville, and my parents recently relocated to the area, too. I love watching my niece and nephew grow—they are full of determination and energy! I am also very close to my sister-in-law, who splits her time between New Orleans and Hawaii. And I consider my close friends family—we hear live music together, collect tarot decks and support each other in a way that is really special. At home, it’s me and my deaf dog, Hubble. 

A woman smiles in a tree hugger baseball cap, rocks visible behind her.
Lee at Exit Glacier, a retreating glacier and icon of climate change, in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, in 2021.

On a typical Saturday evening, you can find me:

Either snuggling my dog while watching a documentary about cults or enjoying a few cocktails at Old Pal with friends.

Outside of my work, I am passionate about:

The arts! I have served on a few local boards and enjoy visiting art museums and galleries. I love makers of any kind and can find ways to appreciate most genres of art, music and performance. I studied visual art in school and still enjoy painting for leisure when I am in the right headspace.

Favorite national park:

So far, my favorite has been Kenai Fjords in Alaska. I haven’t marked many off my bucket list yet but feel fortunate to have been to Denali, Canyonlands, Volcano, Rocky Mountain, Mammoth Cave, the Smokies and Joshua Tree.

A song that really pumps me up:

Naive Melody by Talking Heads.

What do you like about Ecology so far?

I am inspired by the mix of science and creativity that I see around the Ecology Building. It’s really rejuvenating to be surrounded by faculty and students who are dedicating their studies to the earth! My late husband was very passionate about the environment and what we leave behind for future generations, and he always took his own path. His friends and family even set up a UGA fund in his memory, the Dan Williams Future Climate Leaders Fund, that supports the Georgia Climate Project. I see some of those same traits in the people I’ve met or see in the hallways. I am very happy to be here!