Written by
Gwen McNamara, Assistant Director, Communications
May 29, 2023

For Princeton University senior Gisell Curbelo, finding and building community has been foundational for her educational journey. In recognition of her steadfast commitment to human rights, immigrant rights, and the Latin American and transfer student communities, the Pace Center for Civic Engagement has honored Curbelo with the Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize

The Glickman Prize is awarded annually on Class Day to a Princeton University senior who has demonstrated independence and imagination in the area of community service, seeks knowledge and purposeful adventure in unfamiliar cultures, and maintains strong academic work. The prize commends the qualities of curiosity in the world and commitment to the betterment of the world by recognizing outstanding past contributions to community service. 

Born in Cuba, Curbelo arrived in the United States at the age of 13 and started her higher education journey at Miami Dade College in Florida. A transfer student at Princeton, Curbelo has woven together her personal passions and academic opportunities, carving out a path that has enabled her to grow and her fellow students to thrive.

“My life experiences growing up in Cuba and witnessing the struggles of the exile community in Miami unleashed in me an avid commitment to advocate for human and immigrant rights,” Curbelo said. While at Miami Dade College, she served as student government president and worked on voter registration drives and “know your rights” workshops geared toward the immigrant community of Little Havana. She brought this passion to Princeton, finding ways to learn and make a difference.

“I found my place at Princeton and with this privileged position and the academic knowledge I’ve obtained, I can use what I’ve gained to build community and also serve the communities I am part of,” she said. “I am in a place to serve, and in a way connect the places I am and the places I have been.”

Having started her sophomore year online as Princeton navigated the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Curbelo sought to build greater pathways for connection and community when she came to campus in person as a junior. While navigating a new place alongside her academic demands, she became active with the Princeton Transfer Association, a student organization for transfer students at Princeton, and resurrected the Princeton Latin American Student Association (PLASA). 

Princeton Latin American Student Association members holding flags.

Members of the Princeton Latin American Student Association (PLASA) at the Sabrosura Festival. Photo by Ryan Sung Photography.

As co-president of PLASA her senior year, she breathed new life into the group by organizing spaces for students to study and connect together over meals, attend events, and hear from inspirational speakers. Through collaboration with fellow student organizations she extended connection and community to others as well. For example, PLASA collaborated with the Princeton African Student Association (PASA) to go on a community tour of the town of Princeton with Pace Center Community Partner-in-Residence Fern Spruill. “PLASA members had the opportunity to learn about the histories and present of Princeton’s diverse communities of color,” Curbelo said. “Both our organizations felt it was important to engage with the history of this place where we live.”

Meanwhile, she simultaneously pursued academic experiences and coursework that could deepen her understanding and uplift her community. She became part of Service Focus, connecting with peers and faculty in exploring issues of migration, race, and belonging, and purposefully sought out internship and course experiences that could deepen her understanding and impact related to human rights and immigration issues. Through two Princeton RISE (Recognizing Inequities and Standing for Equality) internships, Curbelo engaged with the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF) and later the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

Curbelo notes her experience with LALDEF and the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES) course “Central Americans and Asylum in the United States,” as being particularly transformational. 

“As part of the course I attended a master calendar hearing at Newark Immigration Court,” Curbelo said. “It was shocking to witness individuals in a state of extreme vulnerability as they faced the asylum system without the guidance of a legal representative.” Together, she and other members of the class put together a country condition report for one individual seeking relief. “I later learned that the immigration judge cited our work and the individual was granted the Convention Against Torture (CAT) relief. Our work made a significant impact in a person’s life.” 

Professors, academic advisers, and peers praised her diligence, care, attention to detail, and willingness to support and mentor others. 

Reflecting on Curbelo’s senior thesis, Amelia Frank-Vitale, postdoctoral research associate and lecturer with the Program in Latin American Studies notes: “[Gisell’s] project is brilliant, both in terms of the exceptional research she has done and the analysis she offered, but also how she connects the end of Cuban exceptionalism with larger policy issues with U.S. asylum and immigration law. Over the course of a year, she has gone from being a novice, to an expert on par with practitioners and law students.”

Transfer and veteran students at Princeton University wearing gray sashes.

Gisell Curbelo (front row, third from right) and fellow transfer and veteran students celebrate at the first-ever Transfer and Veteran End-of-Year Celebration hosted by the Emma Bloomberg Center. Photo courtesy of Gisell Curbelo.

“As a transfer student to Princeton, Gisell took it upon herself to serve as a mentor to younger transfer students who found themselves in a new social and academic environment midway through their undergraduate education,” said Sahar Aziz, visiting professor in the School of Public and International Affairs. “Gisell responds to hardship with resilience, grit, and community building. Gisell lifts others as she rises rather than closes the door behind her. … It’s been an absolute delight working with Gisell, who brings light and compassion wherever she goes.”   

“I am impressed by Gisell’s initiative to curate what she wanted her Princeton experience to look like - a journey bigger than herself to serve her community and light the path for future students,” added Daniela Alvarez, member of the Class of 2021 and former fellow transfer student with Curbelo. 

During her time at Princeton, Curbelo was also a founding member of the ProCES Student Advisory Board, was a representative with Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and participated in Masflow Dance Company. Moving forward, Curbelo aims to use her passion and knowledge to further advocate for human and immigrant rights and is exploring pathways to become a human rights or immigration rights attorney. 

“My experiences have taught me the importance of creating community,” said Curbelo. “Community has been the most important thing that has helped me, whether that was my family, or my school, sports, community events, or by dancing. Community is one of the cornerstones of the person that I have become and what I would like to do in the future.”