The years spent by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 at the University were marked by academic insecurity, but ultimately served to broaden the horizons of the future judge, she wrote in her recently published memoir, “My Beloved World.”
In one passage, Sotomayor recalled frequent letters to the editor published in The Daily Princetonian complaining about students who, like her, benefitted from the recently introduced affirmative action program. At times, she wrote, the attitude of her white classmates and the difficulty of adapting to college life made her feel as if her admission to the University were “some clerical oversight.”
“There were vultures circling, ready to dive when we stumbled. The pressure to succeed was relentless, even if self-imposed out of fear and insecurity,” Sotomayor wrote of affirmative action’s critics. “For we all felt that if we did fail, we would be proving the critics right, and the doors that had opened just a crack to let us in would be slammed shut again.”
While at the University, Sotomayor was involved with Accion Puertorriquena and the Third World Center, which she called a “psychic refuge in an environment where an undercurrent of hostility often belied the idyllic surface.” However, she suggested that minority students should engage with a larger campus community and avoid “the temptations of self-segregation.”
Sotomayor, who is originally from the Bronx, found Princeton radically different from the borough of her upbringing.
In her memoir, Sotomayor described the problems of her early family life, including her father’s alcoholism and early death, tensions between her mother and paternal grandmother, discrimination against Puerto Ricans by other ethnic groups and her family’s dire financial straits.
She also described her struggles with Type 1 diabetes, which was a key factor in her decision to enter the legal profession. Sotomayor wrote that, as a child, she wanted to be a detective like Nancy Drew, her favorite fictional character. But a career adviser told her that, because of her disease, she could not be a police officer, and by extension a detective. After watching the “Perry Mason” show, an early legal drama, Sotomayor decided that a profession as a lawyer or judge would be the next best thing.
Sotomayor identified her high school classmate Kenneth Moy ’75, as her main reason for applying to Princeton. Like most of the low-income students in her Catholic high school, she had planned to apply to a parochial college, but she said it was Moy who encouraged her to “try for the Ivy League.”
As a student at the University, Sotomayor took classes in such varied subjects as Chinese politics, Roman law, sociology, literature and psychology. At a time when computers were largely limited to college campuses, she worked at the old Computer Center as part of her financial aid package.
Sotomayor’s senior thesis, titled “La Historia Ciclica de Puerto Rico: The Impact of the Life of Luis Munoz Marin on the Political and Economic History of Puerto Rico, 1930-1975,” focused on Marin, the first governor of Puerto Rico elected by the people rather than appointed by the United States. In a brief aside, Sotomayor wrote that because she used the Computer Center’s punch cards to enter the text of her thesis, she “might have submitted the first word-processed senior thesis in Princeton’s history.”
Despite the challenges, Sotomayor wrote that her time at the University had been an invaluable source of new experiences.
“Until I arrived at Princeton, I had no idea how circumscribed my life had been, confined to a community that was essentially a village in the shadow of a great metropolis with so much to offer, of which I’d tasted almost nothing,” Sotomayor wrote. “I honestly felt no envy or resentment, only astonishment, at how much of a world there was out there and how much of it others already knew.”