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KC Hysmith sits in Suttons Drug Store in chapel Hill, wearing her cap and gown.
KC Hysmith

When KC Hysmith (‘23 Ph.D.) and her husband take their son and daughter to Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, they often end up at Sutton’s Drug Store and grab chocolate malts — a spot that reminds Hysmith of a similar diner near Texas A&M University where her parents split chocolate malts in the 1980s.

“You can get that same American-style food almost anywhere in the nation,” Hysmith said. “Diners like that are a comforting space.”

As a high school student in Texas, Hysmith wanted to pursue a career in the culinary industry. Her mother, Rebecca Powell, encouraged her to continue her academic studies. After meeting Elizabeth Engelhardt when Hysmith was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, she later discovered that Carolina’s Ph.D. in American studies paired her interest in food with the rigor of food culture research and history.

“I had heard about Carolina and the academic excellence that it had in terms of food scholars,” she said. “That’s part of why Carolina made sense.”

Ten years nearly to the day of Powell’s death from colon cancer, Hysmith wore her mother’s Aggie signet ring around her neck as she walked across the stage at her doctoral hooding ceremony. The signet ring, Hysmith explained, is a lauded tradition for Texas A&M students.

“It felt extra special this year,” she said. “When Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz was talking about it being Mother’s Day weekend, how he was grateful for all of the moms out there, I was like: ‘You can continue your speech; I want to hear more about that,’” she said with a laugh.

Already a mother when she came to Carolina as a graduate student — Hysmith’s oldest child was nine months old — she quickly built a community of other parents, including with the late Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote.

“Several faculty also have kids, and they were incredibly kind,” she said. “We were dealing with life as mothers, as scholars, and also pandemic-ing together” she said. Hysmith’s children are now seven and four. The Department of American Studies is part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

At Carolina, she studied the intersection of food, gender, and the digital landscape. She works remotely from Carrboro as the director of communications for the Museum of Food and Drink.

During her time as a student, she served as associate editor of Edible NC: A Journey across a State of Flavor, authored by Marcie Cohen Ferris, and as co-author of the Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook, both published by UNC Press. Her work has also been featured by The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Gastronomica, Food52 and other media outlets, garnering her more than 125,000 followers on Instagram.

“At my hooding ceremony, I wanted to take in everything,” she said. “I had some great advice from my mentors. They said to stay in the moment. … I was very happy, but it was happy tears. I was excited, and it was also bittersweet.”

At UNC-Chapel Hill, Hysmith found a welcoming group of friends — many of whom she celebrated with following her hooding ceremony.

“Coming from Texas, we missed a lot of that ‘just come on over and eat dinner with us,’” she explained. “Luckily, that kind of hospitality that we grew up with in Texas is abundant in North Carolina. … We’ve definitely found community here to the point that we’re putting down roots.”

During her first year as a graduate student, Hysmith received The Graduate School’s Weiss Urban Livability Program — which paired well with her department’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research and to grow her network of colleagues.

“Being a Weiss fellow and having a built-in community from my first day as a Tar Heel was so meaningful and welcoming,” she said. “The fellowship connected us to public-facing academics and folks in town, like the leaders at TABLE and the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, who also helped us find community beyond campus and gave us the opportunity to use our academic experiences and training to support that community, our new home, too.”

By Elizabeth Poindexter, The Graduate School

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