Auburn Home > Take 5 > Kate Thornton

Kate Thornton

Director of hunger and sustainability initiatives
College of Human Sciences

Kate Thornton is a native of Irmo, S.C., where the townspeople annually celebrate the Okra Strut, the growing and eating of okra. She had earned a bachelor's in biochemistry and a BFA in visual arts from Clemson University, where she achieved many academic accolades, including Rhodes Scholar finalist and Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient. She initially came to Auburn in 2005 for graduate school, where she added three more academic degrees – a master's in consumer affairs, an MBA and a Ph.D. in integrated textiles and apparel science. She also started a family in Auburn, adopting two young boys from Africa, and was married last December. Thornton became the director of hunger and sustainability initiatives in the College of Human Sciences in January.

1. You came to Auburn for graduate school. Why did you stay?

The main reason I stayed was that when I finished my Ph.D., I was very much still adjusting to life as a single mom – my son Caleb came home in January 2010 – and I really enjoyed my work with the MBA program here. Then, I got word that my son Ephraim was available for adoption. I had already tried to adopt him twice before, but lost him due to legal complications in Ethiopia. When he became available for a third time, I decided to give it one last shot and, fortunately, he was able to come home in September 2011. My husband and I were dating throughout this process and were able to get married in December. When the director position came open, I was already working with Dean June Henton and Dr. Harriet Giles as a post-doc in hunger studies and really found great meaning in marrying my personal interests with my professional career. My kids were orphaned because of extreme poverty and hunger, so to have the opportunity to work toward finding a solution and creating the next generation of hunger advocates is a dream come true.

2. What do you do as director?

As the director of hunger and sustainability initiatives, I work on expanding both the academic and the grassroots hunger and sustainability initiatives here on campus. I also work with others, including the great team in the Sustainability Office, Dr. Paul Harris in the Honors College and Dr. Ainsley Carry and Dr. Amy Hecht, the vice president and assistant vice president for student affairs, to help further Auburn's efforts in solving these global challenges through the creation of a program called the Global Challenge Fellows. It will connect students with scholars and mentors across a spectrum of fields and create an environment where students are empowered to create solutions for the future.

3. Tell me about the "Why Care?" campaign started by your students and Auburn's participation in World Food Day on Oct. 16.

The part I love the most about my job is working with students and helping them see their dreams become a reality. For example, students in the spring capstone class came up with the "Why Care?" campaign. They are trying to spread awareness about hunger by having people submit photographs of themselves holding a sign that finishes the phrase, "I care about hunger because . . ." It's very exciting because over the summer the World Food Day International Student Committee, which is run through the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme, picked up the "Why Care?" campaign as an international student lead-up to World Food Day on Oct. 16. The same students that started the campaign are continuing this fall in a Leadership and Advocacy course taught by Dr. Carry and me to see the campaign through, offer support to other students who will be running "Why Care?" campaigns all across the globe and sharpen their leadership skills. For more information, visit

4. Thanks to Dean Henton and others in the College of Human Sciences, Auburn has been the leading academic institution in the global fight against hunger with the United Nations' World Food Programme since 2004. Two years later, Auburn helped start Universities Fighting World Hunger which now boasts more than 200 member institutions around the world. Where do you see Auburn going next?

Through the establishment of the Hunger Solutions Institute this February, our goal is to continue with the development of instructional programming (both through the hunger minor as well as through continuing education courses), increase faculty engagement and strengthen our relationships with our partners, such as the WFP (World Food Programme )and other public and private entities. Through this we hope to ultimately end hunger in our lifetime and give our students and faculty more opportunities to engage in humanitarian work.

5. How did you decide to adopt from Africa?

I am a Christian and was really convicted in 2006, at the age of 26, to adopt. I tried local and private adoptions, but hit some roadblocks, so I decided to try internationally. Ethiopia is one of the few countries that allow single mothers to adopt, and I had already travelled extensively in Africa, so it seemed like a good fit. Ethiopia is an incredible country with a long and diverse history. I feel very fortunate that my children are from there and I look forward to teaching them about their culture as they grow up. Unfortunately, there are still problems of extreme poverty and hunger in Ethiopia. So many children are orphaned there every day. I find great meaning in my vocation because I feel that, in some small way, I am helping other mothers and their children stay together as a family. I officially began my adoption journey in December 2007, and although the process was long and hard, I feel like the luckiest, most blessed person in the world. I could not have even imagined how wonderful my family would become. My husband, Zach, is a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Drake Middle School and we just love, love, love being a family.

Oct. 1, 2012