Thousands of undergraduates have passed through the classroom of Western Carolina University sociology professor Tony Hickey during his 33 years on the faculty. And, while many of those students have been impressive academically, just a handful “have knocked my socks off,” he says. On the first Saturday in November, Hickey and several of his sociology colleagues had a chance to witness two alumnae from that stellar group being recognized by the WCU Alumni Association for their career accomplishments.

Mary Beth Fallin Hunzaker ’10 traveled to campus from the Bay Area of California, where she works for Facebook, and Elizabeth Ransom ’94 came from State College, Pennsylvania, where she is on the faculty of Penn State University, to receive the Young Alumni and Academic Achievement awards, respectively. Presentation of the honors occurred during the annual Chancellor’s Brunch and Alumni Awards Ceremony, part of WCU’s Homecoming festivities.

Hickey recalls Hunzaker and Ransom as being very different as individuals, but said both thrived under the influence of “the Western Way.” Hunzaker, quiet and shy, was from the small Rockingham County town of Madison, while Ransom, an outgoing student-athlete who came to campus to run track and cross-country under the tutelage of former coach Danny Williamson ’84 MAEd ’86, grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna. As students, both “just sort of got it” during their time at WCU by connecting with faculty and the material being taught, Hickey said. “Where Western Carolina really shines, I think, is in creating this avenue for excellence to allow students to discover talents they never knew they had,” he said.

Hunzaker, married to Cary native Nathan Hunzaker ’11, is now a professional sociologist with expertise in the social psychology of information transmission. After graduating with honors with her bachelor’s degree in sociology, she went on to earn a doctorate in sociology at Duke University, where she spent a year as a graduate fellow at its Kenan Institute for Ethics and received a yearlong fellowship from the Duke Social Science Research Institute’s Program for Advanced Research in the Social Sciences.

Last year, Hunzaker joined the Sociology Department at New York University as an assistant professor, teaching statistics and social psychology. There, she was co-recipient of a highly competitive Russell Sage Foundation grant to study political polarization and public opinion concerning inequality, race and immigration in social media echo chambers. This past summer, she accepted an offer to join Facebook’s News Feed team. In her new role, she conducts research aimed at understanding patterns of information sharing on that platform.

Mary Beth Fallin Hunzaker

Hunzaker said that when she came to WCU in 2008 she couldn’t have imagined her current career path, but she doesn’t believe it would have been possible if she had not decided to enroll. “My experiences at the university and the mentorship and support that I received from professors here were really foundational for setting me on this pathway,” she said. In particular, she cited the mentorship of Hickey and his sociology colleagues Kathleen Brennan and Peter Nieckarz, saying the three of them “really stressed the potential of sociological research as a tool for enacting positive social impact in the world.”

As a first-generation college student and naturally shy person, Hunzaker said she easily could have fallen through the cracks at a larger university, but the encouragement and support of her WCU professors helped her take on her first academic presentations and apply to graduate school. “I honestly wouldn’t be here without it,” she said. “I have such deep gratitude to this university and the wonderful people here.”

Ransom, an associate professor in the Penn State University School of International Affairs and senior research associate at the university’s Rock Ethics Institute, is an internationally recognized scholar working at the intersection of women’s empowerment, rural sociology and agriculture. She double-majored in sociology and political science at WCU, in addition to being a decorated athlete on the track and cross country teams.

Elizabeth Ransom
Photo Courtesy of Penn State University

Following her graduation with honors, Ransom went on to graduate study at Michigan State University, focusing on agriculture and food systems in sub-Saharan Africa for her research. She earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at Michigan State, and then had an opportunity to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., as an international trade specialist as part of being a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2006, Ransom joined the faculty at the University of Richmond, where she expanded her research to focus on the global trade in beef and the impact on local farmers in Botswana and Namibia. In more recent years, she received funding from the National Science Foundation for a project in Uganda that focused on how dairy cows can contribute to food security and the empowerment of women and smallholder households.

This past summer, Ransom joined the faculty at Penn State, where she is teaching graduate-level courses and working on expanding her research in sub-Saharan Africa. She has co-edited a book, “Rural America in a Globalizing World: Problems and Prospects for the 2010s,” and is co-editor for the forthcoming volume “Global Meat: Social and Environmental Consequences of the Expanding Meat Industry.”

Ransom said she discovered a wide array of academic disciplines and ideas when she arrived at WCU, but she was “ultimately drawn to sociology and political science both for the faculty and the content that was offered by these two disciplines.” Like Hunzaker, she also was strongly influenced by WCU faculty members who taught her courses. “I was fortunate enough to have faculty who saw in me things I didn’t see in myself. They became my mentors,” Ransom said. “I hope that I have inspired a few students in the same way that I was inspired by faculty here at WCU.”