It was a packed house at Bridges Auditorium on the occasion of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s visit to campus last night. Her day at Pomona included a master class moderated by Professor of Sociology Gilda Ochoa, conversations with professors, students and staff, and a dialogue with Professor of Politics Amanda Hollis-Brusky, followed by a Q&A with students.
First-year students and the wider College community were immersed in Sotomayor’s life story as they read her memoir, My Beloved World, over the summer—and anticipation for her visit ran high.
Claire Burns ’17 says that given that Sotomayor’s 2009 swearing-in and confirmation hearings coincided with a formative period in her consciousness of world happenings, seeing her in person was an amazing experience.
April Xiaoyi Xu ’18, senior editor for the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy, served as one of Sotomayor’s student escorts and attended the master class as well as the evening event. Xu says she eagerly devoured Sotomayor’s autobiography, and as a woman of color was keen on learning more about the justice’s experience in person.
“I have always dreamed of meeting a Supreme Court justice in person and this really is a dream coming true for my peers and myself,” Xu says.
The master class, Xu says, began and ended with unity clapping (a slow crescendo of group clapping). For the first half of the class Ochoa and Sotomayor were in conversation, and the second half was allotted for student questions.
“She talked a lot about how it is to tell your story, and how important passion and drive are,” says Sonia Marton ’16.
At Bridges, Hollis-Brusky asked Sotomayor about the “imposter syndrome” that some first-generation students feel when they come to college—feeling that they don’t belong, that they were admitted by mistake or that gaps in their knowledge may be revealed. In her book, Sotomayor described having that feeling during her time at Princeton and Yale Law School and throughout her career. Hollis-Brusky asked if Sotomayor still felt this way as a Supreme Court justice and what advice she’d give to students who were experiencing this.
“It got worse when I joined the court,” Sotomayor deadpanned, citing her colleagues’ intelligence and broad knowledge, ranging from the Constitution to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passion for opera.
“It is very, very difficult coming from a background like mine, seeing how writers talk about how different you are from the others, not to feel a bit intimidated, not to feel some of the imposter syndrome. I try to explain what I do in my book, and that is, I acknowledge what I’m feeling, because I think the first step in changing anything is being truthful about it. And being truthful enough to say, ‘No, I may not be cultured in the same way. I may never be Ruth Bader Ginsburg and have her total recall of opera, but I do my own thing, and it has value, too.’ … If you’re comparing yourself to others you’re often going to find yourself short on something, especially if they have a background different from your own. But you’re there for a reason—you’re there to do something that’s unique to you,” she said.
In the latter half of the evening, seven students selected across class years and majors posed their questions. For that portion, Sotomayor stepped off the stage and walked among the audience. Among her responses, she sounded a note of caution about using social media (“the Internet is indelible”) and, in response to a question asked by Emily Zheng ’19, talked about how her Catholic faith informs how she chooses to live her life.
“The one thing about Catholicism is that it teaches you that the good and evil in the world is a choice that you make. How you choose to live your life is your choice. And to that extent, I always attribute the reason that I want to give, that I want to live a good life, not necessarily to entering heaven, but because I understand that that kind of goodness makes for a better world,” she said.
Sotomayor went on to say that all religions teach you to look more deeply, to be less materialistic and more spiritual.
Afterwards, Zheng expressed that she was more than satisfied with how Sotomayor answered her question, and that “she answered in a very inclusive way.”
In response to a final question from first-generation college student Jamila Espinosa ’16 about passing on acquired knowledge, Sotomayor’s closing words were a call to remember your roots and return to bring others with you.
“I really believe in paying back and paying forward. I’m a great, great believer in that. ” she said. “We have an obligation for those of us who have come from the backgrounds we have, who have reached a privilege that most of our community members don’t have, we have an obligation. You can’t choose to live your life just for yourself. That’s just not something that you should ever choose to do. Because you’re here because of all the people who came before you, who opened the doors to this college to you. And you have to keep those doors open for the kids that come after you.”