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Surprise Prize ‘Gratifying and a Little Surreal’

Jennifer Nations of Sociology Receives Dean’s Fellowship for Humanistic Studies

By Inga Kiderra

Jennifer Nations of Sociology Receives Dean’s Fellowship for Humanistic Studies

When Jennifer Nations went to see Isaac Martin shortly after graduating, she didn’t think much of it. The newly minted Ph.D. and her dissertation advisor were supposed to meet in UC San Diego’s Department of Sociology to discuss an ongoing research project – nice but not out of the ordinary. Or so she thought. But, surprise! What Nations got instead of a friendly chat was a prize of $20,000.

Nations had been selected as the first recipient of the Dean’s Fellowship Award for Humanistic Studies. Created by an anonymous donor who is passionate about supporting graduate students, the award is a no-strings gift to benefit one Ph.D. graduate in 2017 and another in 2018. The student, who has earned a doctorate in the humanities or humanistic social sciences, is selected on the basis of academic merit as well as demonstrated perseverance to overcome personal hardship.

Broadly speaking, Nations studies social inequality and public policy:  How do government actions either facilitate upward mobility or stymie it? Her dissertation (with unforeseen irony) explores how it is that states have wound up with wildly different approaches to helping their citizens afford the costs of college. Martin, in nominating her for the surprise fellowship, wrote both about Nations’ stellar scholarship and about how she’s been raising three young children in sometimes challenging financial circumstances. He also noted that she goes out of her way to help undergrads who are struggling for one reason or another.

Steven Cassedy, associate dean of the university’s Graduate Division, which administers the award, served on the selection committee and was on hand the day of the ruse to present Nations with the award certificate. After praising her accomplishments, he let her know that her bank balance would soon grow by five digits and that she was free to spend the money as she wished. A campus photographer snapped pictures of the shock, the smiles, the tears and more smiles.

Asked about the award later, Nations said that it was both “gratifying and a little surreal.”

“Speaking generally of Ph.D. students, you keep a lot of your struggles to yourself. You just kind of suck it up and you deal with it and you keep going,” she said. “The way that we talk about success in academia is all about merit. Especially as a social scientist, I know merit is a bit of a myth. There are a lot of people and a lot of factors to ‘merit.’ There are advisors and there are family members, who may or may not be supportive. There are health factors – mental health and physical health. There’s housing, basic well-being. 

“An award the intended purpose of which is to recognize merit and some of the other things feels more human to me – more of a real acknowledgment.  Who reaches out and says ‘Hey, that was really hard what you just did?!’  How often do you hear: ‘You’ve produced this excellent, fantastic work and you persisted…’? I think it’s wonderful and wonderfully unusual.”

Nations’ plans for the cash? She and her husband will set it aside as the start of a down payment on a first home for them and their children, ages 10, 8 and 2.

The Dean’s Fellowship Award for Humanistic Studies celebrates Ph.D. students in Anthropology, Communication, History, Linguistics, Literature, Philosophy and Sociology, recognizing that these fields help to “drive creative innovation in our society” – that they are “intrinsic to campus enrichment and critical to our shared future.” The award also recognizes that “graduate students are the lifeblood of major universities like UC San Diego.” Indeed.


Documenting the moments Nations received the "surprise prize." Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications.