At Princeton, Sotomayor ’76 excelled at academics, extracurriculars
In September 1972, a young Hispanic woman from New York arrived on campus as a freshman in the University’s fourth coed class. In the more than three decades since, Sonia Sotomayor ’76 has grown from a focused, bookish undergraduate to an influential federal judge rumored to be a strong contender to replace the retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
Currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, Sotomayor was a dedicated student who reached out to her classmates and their families and gradually rose to leadership positions in several organizations on campus, several friends said.
Sotomayor’s path to Princeton was an unusual one for an undergraduate in the 1970s.
Born in June 1954 to the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Sotomayor was raised in a housing project near Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx. Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8, and after her father died a year later, her mother raised her and her brother on a nurse’s salary.
Sotomayor attended Cardinal Spellman High School, a catholic school in the Bronx, where she was very active in “a lot of different causes,” said Sergio Sotolongo ’77, a friend of Sotomayor’s in both high school and college.
Sotolongo added he grew close to Sotomayor when they were both members of the student government at Cardinal Spellman.
“She opened my eyes to a number of different things,” he said. “Our last names are very similar, and we had a friend in common, [so she became] a kind of mentor to me from afar.”
After graduating from Princeton, Sotomayor attended Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal. After serving as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, Sotomayor spent seven years at a commercial litigation firm.
Sotomayor was nominated in November 1991 by former president George H.W. Bush to a set on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and confirmed nine months later. Only 38, she became the youngest judge in the district and the state’s first Hispanic federal judge. In June 1997, former president Bill Clinton nominated Sotomayor for her current seat on the Second Circuit, and she was confirmed in October 1998.
Still, throughout her ascent in the judicial world, she has remained close to Princeton, receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree in 2001 and becoming a member of the University Board of Trustees in 2007.
Friends from Sotomayor’s time at Princeton characterized her as a very pensive student and a hard worker.
“She was very studious and intent on doing well in school,” said Joe Schubert ’74, who added he was a “good friend” of Sotomayor’s. “I remember her emerging sometimes in the early morning from her room, somewhat rumpled. I knew she spent all night working on a paper or studying … If she had a project to do, she worked on it 100 percent.”
Margarita Rosa ’74, who said she still stays in contact with Sotomayor, also characterized her friend as a serious student.
“I marvel[ed] at her capacity to handle an awful lot of different tasks simultaneously, and do them all well,” Rosa said.
Even as she focused on her studies, Sotomayor was active in Accion Puertorriquena, the Third World Center and the Committee on Discipline. She also volunteered at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and worked to found a Latino students organization.
“She rose to leadership positions over time,” Rosa said. “But she was slow to join things. She sized things up for a while before she decided to become a part of something … I had a sense she was very methodical in her decision-making.”
Rosa recalled that, when she was a junior and belonged to Accion Puertorriquena, she had to work hard to convince Sotomayor, who was a freshman at the time, to join the group.
Sotomayor also helped convince Sotolongo to enroll at the University, he noted.
“I recall reaching out to her when I got accepted,” he explained. “[I was] asking questions about what she thought, and we talked a lot about different courses [and] issues back home.”
“She certainly gave me a first glimpse of Princeton,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t know much about the school, and the fact that someone from Spellman of Hispanic descent — like I was —went to Princeton got my interest piqued.”
Sotolongo added that Sotomayor hosted his family when they came to campus for his graduation. “She treated them like they were her family,” he said. “She showed them around New York and showed us where she grew up. She went out of her way to make people feel comfortable.”
Despite all this outreach, her friends said Sotomayor was never one to talk about herself much, so it came as something of a surprise to them when she won the Pyne Prize her senior year, graduated summa cum laude and was inducted into the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. A history major, Sotomayor maintained almost straight As in her junior and senior years and was the first Latino student to win the Pyne Prize, according to a 1976 article in The Daily Princetonian.
“It didn’t occur to me she was as talented as she was until she won the Pyne Prize,” Schubert said. “She invited me back [to campus] to witness her acceptance … [but] she’s not one to focus on herself or brag about her accomplishments.”
This modesty is still one of Sotomayor’s defining characteristics, Rosa said, noting that even though the two speak regularly, they have not “had any lengthy discussions” about the possibility of Sotomayor being nominated.
“Clearly, we’re both conscious it’s happening, and I’m sure it’s absorbing a great portion of her life, [but] it’s not really something we spend a lot of time discussing,” Rosa explained.
Sotolongo, Schubert and Rosa all said they were staunch supporters of her nomination to the Supreme Court. Rosa said Sotomayor “embodies the characteristics [President Obama] described” when he explained he would look for a nominee with “empathy” for “people’s hopes and struggles.”
Reflecting back on their days together on Cardinal Spellman’s student government, Sotolongo explained that Sotomayor has “a really strong concept of fairness” and that “she is very much someone who advocates for the common man.”
Sotolongo also explained her Hispanic roots would help her candidacy. “I think it would be a tremendous thing for the court to have the first woman who is a Latina represented on the bench,” he said. “The time has come.”
Sotolongo added that he did not think Sotomayor expected in college to become a judge. “I think if you were to ask her, she saw herself as someone who would be a legal aid attorney, representing folks who couldn’t afford high-price attorneys,” he explained.
Rosa praised Sotomayor as a strong potential nominee for the Supreme Court. “She is measured on her decision making, that still holds true,” Rosa said. “She does her homework. She delves into materials and information in a way you wish someone like that would do. She is intellectually gifted and emotionally grounded.”
Schubert echoed Rosa’s sentiment, adding that even though some articles like those in The New Republic have painted Sotomayor as a liberal, he believes “she has no agenda, hard right or left, that I can detect.”
“I think the world of her,” he said. “If the president is looking for someone who, as he said, has empathy for all walks of life, that would be how I would characterize Sonia.”