National sociology organization awards MSU Ph.D. candidate $18,000 scholarship to study food insecurity among community college students

Laura Jean Kerr (Photo by Logan Kirkland)

Contact: Sarah Nicholas

STARKVILLE, Miss.—A Mississippi State University doctoral student is the winner of the 2019 Beth B. Hess Memorial Scholarship awarded annually by the Sociologists for Women in Society.

Laura Jean Kerr, a Ph.D. student in MSU’s Department of Sociology, won the $18,000 scholarship funded by the SWS with assistance from the Society for the Study of Social Problems. The award, honoring the former SWS president, goes to graduate students whose academic careers began at the community-college level and who have established research regarding social inequality, social justice or social problems.

“I qualified for the scholarship because I first attended and graduated from Meridian Community College,” Kerr said. “It was the faculty at MCC and the people I met while there who made a huge difference in how I saw myself and what I was capable of doing.”

Kerr graduated from MCC in 2000 with an associate of arts degree in social work. After completing her undergraduate education at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Kerr returned to MCC to work as a career assessment coordinator. 

She received her MSU master’s degree in sociology in 2010 and expects to earn her Ph.D. in 2020.

Established in 2005, the Beth B. Hess award provides funds to support college students actively working on a dissertation who seek a career in teaching, especially at an institution serving less-privileged students. Winners must have faced obstacles in obtaining a higher education, be committed to mentoring first-generation students, and exemplify a commitment to professional service and social justice work.  

“At this point in my studies, the biggest hurdles are supporting myself, so I can afford travel to conduct research,” Kerr said, noting the scholarship allows flexibility when scheduling appointments throughout the state for research purposes.

Kerr’s dissertation spotlights food insecurity among community college students in Mississippi. She is working to measure the prevalence of food insecurity, examine its relationship to academic progress or attainment, and assess the potential and limits of policy solutions.  

“We are all immensely proud of Laura Jean Kerr,” said Adele Crudden, MSU professor and sociology interim department head. “She is dedicated to researching and addressing issues for people experiencing the consequences of financial insecurity and reduced opportunities.”

Kerr expressed appreciation for departmental faculty and staff. “Dr. Kecia Johnson, my dissertation chair, put a lot of work into helping me with my application. She will say it is her job, but she put days of work into assisting me.”

A native of Ontario, Canada, and Meridian, Kerr will accept her award at the 2019 SWS awards reception this August in New York City.

“Each summer, SWS, the SSSP, and the American Sociological Association hold conferences in the same city concurrently or in succession. I have never dreamed of attending a national conference, and now I have the opportunity to participate,” Kerr said. “I would consider these conferences to be the ‘Disney World of sociology.’”

Kerr plans to use her degree to teach, working with college students to help them select college majors, develop plans for skill acquisition, navigate their institutions and support themselves throughout their college careers.

“We have a lot of work to do so that postsecondary students are supported, and I hope to contribute to solutions that make a good difference for them,” Kerr said.

MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences includes more than 5,300 students, 300 full-time faculty members, nine doctoral programs and 25 academic majors offered in 14 departments. Complete details about the College of Arts and Sciences or Department of Sociology can be found at or     

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