Southwestern University sociology major Elena Clark ’24 won first place in the nationwide undergraduate paper competition hosted by Alpha Kappa Delta, the international sociology honor society.

Clark’s submission to the contest was a result of her capstone project, titled “‘Freedom of the streets’ or ‘Barriers to success?’ Factors that Predict Attitudes About Homelessness in the United States.” Professor of Sociology Maria Lowe served as Clark’s faculty mentor throughout the process.

“It’s surreal and very surprising, but it makes me feel really good about my work,” Clark said about the honor. “I am really proud of myself and proud to be a sociology major. I have to give a lot of credit to Dr. Lowe because she helped a lot throughout the process. Without her, my paper would not be what it is.”

Each year, sociology majors from around the country submit their papers to the prestigious competition. Clark was competing against students at fellow top liberal arts universities as well as several R1 doctoral universities with high research activity.

“When I received the email that she had won this award, I was not surprised at all because she is such an excellent student and a gifted researcher,” Dr. Lowe said. “I am extraordinarily proud. This is a highly selective, very prestigious, very competitive award. The fact that she won is phenomenal.”

In her capstone project, Clark surveyed 400 adult Americans across the country to study views on homelessness, specifically whether or not respondents believe that homelessness is caused by individual or structural factors.

In her data analysis, she found that respondents who identified as conservative or moderate were more likely to believe that homelessness is caused by individual factors. Those who identified as liberal were more likely to believe that a combination of individual and structural factors are at fault.

“I also found that respondents who believe that government entities have the most responsibility to help unhoused people are less likely to think that homelessness is caused solely by individual factors than people who do not believe that government agencies bear such responsibility,” Clark said.

Growing up in San Antonio, Clark was introduced to homelessness through her church, Grace Lutheran, and their work with the Christian Assistance Ministry, an organization that provides meals and other services to the homeless. This experience sparked her passion for community service and social justice. At Southwestern, the Sociology program allowed her to further study these areas and greatly influenced her capstone research.

“I really love community,” Clark said. “With sociology, I can do work that’s involved with the community, so that’s really why I was drawn to it, plus the opportunity to address social justice issues in a classroom setting when that was not something that was available in high school.”

During her capstone project, she interned at Corazón San Antonio, an organization that provides support to homeless and marginalized communities. After graduation, Clark plans to return home to San Antonio to work for a nonprofit or similar organization committed to community development and engagement.

As part of her first place finish in the competition, Clark will travel to the 2024 American Sociological Association (ASA) meeting in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to be recognized at the AKD Awards Ceremony and present her paper. She will also participate in the prestigious ASA Honors Program and have the opportunity to have her work published in Sociological Inquiry, Alpha Kappa Delta’s quarterly peer-reviewed journal.

“Southwestern prides itself on this type of capstone experience and on this kind of research experience,” Dr. Lowe said. “Awards like this are very affirming that what we’re doing in these classes is rewarding to students. To be acknowledged for that at the national level really sets us apart.”