Originally published June 22nd, 2018

Though she just graduated high school, Jacquelyn Hernandez has the compassion and civic awareness of someone well beyond her years. A graduate of Math Engineering and Science Academy (MESA) Charter High School, a public charter school in Brooklyn, NY, Jacquelyn is the 2018 student winner of the RFK Urban Education Award. When you look at her “modest yet mighty” leadership, as it was described in her nomination, it is easy to see why.

Jacquelyn served as leader of an advocacy club called JAMS (Justice Advocates of MESA). “It started as a women’s empowerment group, then we slowly evolved to include both men and women,” she explains. “And now, we’ve been working on other issues, like domestic violence, and we went to a soup kitchen one time. We’ve tried to advocate for people.”

“I just really enjoy it,” she says of JAMS. “I thought it was fun to meet different people who we were helping. I got to meet really good friends through the group. I felt like…these people are my friends and they care about these issues, too!”

Her service has spanned different areas: Throughout her high school career, Jacquelyn has participated in the NYC Teen Dating Violence Awareness walk-a-thons and additional projects that bring awareness to teen dating violence and abuse. She has coordinated volunteers to help in the aftermath of a major snowstorm last year. She organized students to volunteer at a soup kitchen, which was part of New York City’s largest emergency food program, which led her to then coordinate a clothing drive at her school.

Another example of Jacquelyn’s commitment to serving not just her community, but bettering the world, happened in the spring during the aftermath of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. “Me and my sister were watching part of it on the news: How the shooting happened, and how they were going to organize,” Jacquelyn explains of seeing the Parkland student activists and the March for Our Lives plans. “And my sister was like ‘we should do it! Because there’s nothing stopping us.’ And I was like: ‘You’re right.’”

She immediately texted her JAMS Vice President (her “right-hand woman,” as Jacquelyn refers to her) and emailed the teacher responsible for supervising the club. “We decided to go for it. We worked hard for the next couple weeks and it worked. People came. People were interested. We held an interest meeting and held another meeting to create posters and signs and t-shirts. On the day, we had to be at school around five in the morning, and people came for that too! It was a full bus basically, like 48 students.”

Leading up to the March for Our Lives trip to Washington, Jacquelyn spent lunch periods organizing students to present to classrooms and recruited teachers to chaperone. She helped organize informational sessions, screen printed t-shirts, created opportunities for students to make buttons and signs, and most importantly, tried to reach the school community beyond the JAMS club and connect with students who may have never considered themselves advocates.

When asked how her school has encouraged her activism, Jacquelyn explains that MESA went out of their way to support her in undertaking this work. “It made it possible for me to be more open about it,” she says. “The school I went to made it possible because people were more open-minded, so we had more support.”

She’s still deciding what major she will select in college, but Jacquelyn plans to pursue even more opportunities to be an activist in college. “I’m really excited for college!” she says. “I really want to still do community service and more activism while I’m at college, because then I’ll have a bigger voice and can do more. I’m already planning that, next time it is the Women’s March, I’m going to come down here and march.” 

As for what she’s most excited about in the next phase of her education? “Meeting people that are open-minded and want to have new experiences, and challenging my own thoughts and beliefs,” Jacquelyn says. She wants to be challenged, learn more, and have fun at the same time.

As she graduates, Jacquelyn leaves behind a legacy of empowerment and service through her leadership. “Don’t be afraid,” she says when asked what advice she’d give a student aspiring to make a difference in their community. ”Don’t be afraid because it may seem small, like you’re not doing a lot, but you are doing something. One of the things I hear a lot is “it won’t do anything.” But I firmly believe that…movements [don’t happen] overnight. I believe you have to keep on working on it. Don’t be afraid to do something you’re really passionate about or really care about.”