Human Sciences’ Kate Thornton wins national engagement award from APLU

Published: November 15, 2021

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Auburn University’s Kate Thornton was one of four public university scholars honored with 2021 Board on Human Sciences Awards from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, or APLU.

The director of the Office of Global Education in the College of Human Sciences at Auburn and international outreach director for the Hunger Solutions Institute, Thornton received the 2021 Outstanding Engagement Award, which recognizes an APLU member with “exceptional creativity and scholarship in the development, application and evaluation of outreach, extension and public service programs.”

Thornton earned two bachelor’s degrees — one in visual arts and one in biochemistry — from Clemson University in her native South Carolina, before being drawn to Auburn for a program the school offered in consumer sciences that allowed her to combine her love of science and art. While finishing her doctoral degree on the Plains, Thornton adopted two boys from Ethiopia, a country whose extreme poverty and hunger further increased her desire to help end hunger in the world.

“The adoption process led me to become really passionate about sustainability, and how business can do well by doing good in society,” she said. “I wanted to commit my career to helping alleviate hunger and poverty wherever I could.”

Thornton’s efforts in developing academic coursework that provides students with the tools and knowledge to make the world a better place is part of what earned her the award. She is responsible for helping to develop one of the nation’s only minor in hunger studies as well as the Global Studies in Human Sciences Major and a new Master of Development Practice Program.

She also serves as the academic director of the Kirchner Food Fellowship program, which allows college students to gain real-world experience in impact investment by training them to invest in companies that are committed to advancing food equity and food security.

“We take students from across the world, and help them grow from peripheral knowledge of impact investing to them actually deploying $50,000 of real money and buying an equity stake in a company with the goal of investing in companies that are going to get us one day closer to everybody having access to safe and nutritious food,” Thornton said. “We’re really looking at resource-poor communities, and companies that work in them.”

She believes that her “secret sauce” is to help students develop the skills needed to be successful, and then provide opportunities both in and out of the classroom to put those skills to use.

“My philosophy on what I do is to build the right system, and then just get out of the way and let people shine,” Thornton said. “What I love doing is putting students in situations where they are interacting with real people who are making the world a better place, and giving the students a chance to use their strengths and gifts to make a difference in the world.”

For Thornton, receiving the award reaffirms that she is in the right place to achieve her mission. The award signifies that the work she and her colleagues in the College of Human Sciences are doing is helping to improve the lives of people around the world.

“It’s such an unexpected honor, and I was completely blown away that I was even nominated for the award,” she said. “I feel like I share the award with my colleagues, because our philosophy here is ‘science to improve quality of life,’ and we do that in all the different fields of human sciences. I’m blessed to be surrounded by such amazing colleagues.”

Kate Thornton