By Debbie Adams
Grecia Hernandez of Vinton recently had the opportunity to give a presentation to the United
Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, on “the school-to-prison pipeline.”
She is a graduate of William Byrd High School in the Class of 2020 and is now a senior at
She has accumulated a long list of exemplary achievements, beginning at William Byrd Middle
School where she served as SCA president in the eighth grade. In high school, she participated in
marching band, played lacrosse, and was very active in her church—Thrasher Memorial United
Methodist. She went on youth mission trips like the Appalachian Service Project focused on
rebuilding communities by repairing homes to make them “warmer, safer, and drier.” In the
summer before her senior year, she was selected for the Sorenson Institute’s High School
Leadership Program where she helped draft state-level legislation.
As a valedictorian and Distinguished Honors graduate at WBHS, she was able to choose among
several universities and selected Princeton.
“It’s been recognized as the best university in the country for well over a decade now, which
certainly simplified my decision,” Hernandez says. “Princeton’s generous financial aid program
and undergraduate focus made it an obvious choice.”
She is currently finishing her degree requirements in the School of Public and International
Affairs (SPIA) undergraduate program.
I chose this major because of its commitment to give undergraduate students a hands-on
education in policymaking and advocacy. While every undergraduate at Princeton gets to carry
out independent research, for me, the chance to also write policy and interact with incredible
leaders made SPIA a very compelling choice.”
Her years at Princeton have been just as busy as her high school years.
“I’m involved in several organizations at Princeton. My faith is a very important part of my life,
so I am very well known in the Office of Religious Life (ORL) and the organizations it houses. I
am the president of the Princeton University Chapel Choir, a group leader with the Princeton
Presbyterians, and a board member of the Westminster Foundation (an organization dedicated to
the cause of expanding undergraduate campus ministry at Princeton and other schools in New
Jersey). I served as the long-time student intern for the Wesley Foundation (the university’s
Methodist ministry), a Student Fellow for the Office of Religious Life’s Faith Based Internship
Program, and a member of the Religious Life Council.
“Outside of the ORL, I am also involved with a few different service and advocacy
organizations. Through the Pace Center, Princeton’s center for service and civic engagement, I
am a Nancy Weiss Malkiel Fellow and a peer mentor with the Princeton University Mentorship
Program (PUMP), where I mentor freshman of color at Princeton.
“I have many good things to say about Princeton; however, the first year is a big adjustment for
many students and is even more difficult for some. This is where PUMP mentors come in. We
are an additional resource for freshmen to go to during this transitional period.
“I was also part of the first cohort of a new program in SPIA called the Policy Advocacy Clinic,
an academic program that brings students into the real world of advocacy. I focused on the
school-to-prison pipeline and the unfortunate phenomenon of excessive use of force by law
She has served as an advising fellow for the national organization Matriculate which is dedicated
to expanding access to higher education for high-achieving, first-generation, lower-income
students of color by providing mentors from member universities, such as Princeton, Yale, and
“I cultivated relationships with my High School Fellows and helped give them advice throughout
the college application process. This is a very complicated process for anyone and is especially
so for students whose parents never went through the process. I loved serving as an advising
fellow–it was one of the highlights of my Princeton career. One of my High School Fellows was
accepted into Princeton and is now part of the freshman class.”
As for how her trip to the UN came about, in the spring of her sophomore year, she applied to
and was accepted into a brand new program in SPIA called the Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC).
“In this program, my classmates and I were put into teams of about four that worked on
independent research and advocacy at different levels of government. I was part of the UN
group; the other two groups worked on either the federal or the state level.
“My group was tasked with familiarizing ourselves with a treaty the United States ratified in
1992 called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This treaty, unlike
many others, is considered U.S. law just like any other passed at the federal level (with some
“I was asked to research the ways that the U.S.’s school-to-prison pipeline causes our country to
fall short of compliance with this international law. This was especially relevant this year
because the U.S. is currently being reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee
for compliance with the document.
“My groupmates and I each did research for an entire semester which became a 160-page
document that my professor gave to the national ACLU as evidence of U.S. non-compliance with
“The ACLU liked our document enough that they recommended we go to the UN Human Rights
Committee during their meetings with the non-governmental advocacy organizations who work
in defense of human rights–and give a presentation on some of the issues we researched. I
presented on the school-to-prison pipeline because it is an issue that has not been addressed in
“The school-to-prison pipeline is a well-documented phenomenon where primarily Black
students and students with disabilities are funneled into the criminal justice system instead of
towards resources such as counselors and mental health professionals. This punishment-focused
approach has led to students as young as 6 years old being arrested for having temper tantrums at
“Other advocates for this issue and I believe that a compassionate response to these outbreaks
and other negative behaviors at school would make our students and society safer.
“The research I worked on further strengthens my belief that our current response to unwanted
behavior in schools is harming students more than helping them. I presented evidence to the UN
Human Rights Committee of the ways that the school to prison pipeline also causes the U.S. to
fall short of compliance with the ICCPR.
“The reason we went to Geneva instead of New York is because the UN Human Rights
Committee (UNHRC) is located in Geneva, whereas the General Assembly and other bodies are
in New York.
“Princeton University and the ACLU were excited to have myself and my three classmates
present our findings and advocate for the UNHRC to bring up these issues in the review
happening in mid-October. They arranged our flights and lodging, as well as invited Jamil
Dakwar, the ACLU’s national Director for Human Rights, to accompany and work with us.
“My professor, Udi Ofer, served as the Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey for
several years after his tenure as the Director of Criminal Justice at the National ACLU in New
York. He is now a visiting professor at Princeton who is primarily tasked with running the Policy
Advocacy Clinic that he founded.”
As a Nancy Weiss Malkiel Fellow, Hernandez worked on a project designed to help facilitate
better access to higher education for marginalized groups. The process of doing this began in her
junior year at Princeton when she completed two independent research projects.
“The one in the fall semester was an inquiry into what kinds of resources might be lacking in
communities with relatively low educational outcomes. I focused primarily on the Mexican
American community because that is the one that I am most familiar with. In the spring, I
worked on the research that was ultimately submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee.”
She also produced a proposal and template for a series of booklets that might help fill in some
knowledge gaps about various parts of the American educational system after consulting with
mentors at Princeton who suggested she try to find an avenue to create the booklets.
“I applied for, and was awarded, a Nancy Weiss Malkiel Fellowship to get funding to make the
project happen. This is a Fellowship in its second year of existence awarded by the Pace Center,
Princeton’s center for service and civic engagement. It is so new that I am one of five total
people who have been awarded this fellowship. It is a very generous grant to carry out a project
that increases access to higher education in underrepresented communities and was endowed by
the family of one of the first female professors at Princeton, Nancy Weiss Makiel.”
Hernandez says her future plans include law school.
“When I was in fourth grade, I decided that I would be a lawyer who helped people. I will likely
take a year or two to work in the real world before I ultimately go to law school. My hope is that,
wherever I work in that time, I can continue working towards expanding access to education,
advocating for human rights, and putting my faith into action.
“My Christian faith remains an important motivation in my decision making. I am very fortunate
that Thrasher was such a gracious and loving community throughout my high school years and
remains so now. In acknowledgement of my involvement in different faith organizations on and
off campus, one of the Deans of the ORL asked me to attend the Audacity of Peace conference
held in Berlin, Germany by the Community of Sant’ Egidio at the start of September. I hope to
always keep my faith at the center of my life.”