Today, Sonia Sotomayor, the powerful and big-hearted Bronx-born advocate for human rights turns 65 years old, nearly 10 years into her tenure as a Supreme Court Justice. Nominated to the bench during President Obama’s first term, Justice Sotomayor is the first Latina to have ever served in the highest court. While serving as a Supreme Court justice, through her rulings and dissents Sotomayor have reflected her belief that power ought to be in the hands of the people — including the people that are systematically forgotten and left behind through legislation. In honor of her birthday, we’d like to highlight her efforts to reshape the United States through her focus on higher education.
Her Personal Journey
Princeton University, her alma mater, just established a scholarship fund in her name. The Sonia Sotomayor 1976 Scholarship Fund will be awarded to students whose own life journeys share the spirit of excellence and service that Sotomayor has carried with her throughout her years. “Service to me meant what my life has been. It’s caring, it’s giving, and that’s where the phrase ‘service in the name of humanity’ came from. If we start there, everything else good will follow,” she said in 2017 at a university event.
She focused a lot of her energy on building up a Latinx community on campus, an activism that Princeton cited in announcing the scholarship. She took on leadership roles at the Latino Student Organization and the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding. She also worked to make sure that no one was left behind or forgotten, organizing volunteers to be available as translators for Spanish-speaking patients at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, a state-run facility in the state capital.
Being a student a Princeton offered her so many opportunities to grow and fulfill her potential, presenting many challenges to her along the way. Academically, she struggled with writing. “We are not all good at everything, not everyone is a superstar in every single way, everybody has their strengths and everyone has their weaknesses,” she in 2016 at an address in San Juan. “There are things that you have to work on.” Per NBC News, she spent her entire undergrad years “learning how to write well when a professor told she did not know how to write.”
Diversity is Key
As a vocal supporter of affirmative action, Sotomayor has been a staunch advocate for diversity in higher education, rejecting efforts to diversify student bodies based on purely socioeconomic factors. She went into why she supports affirmative action while speaking at the University of Michigan in 2017. (Sotomayor was critical of the state’s 2006 decision to no longer consider race as a factor in admissions at public universities.) “When you look at the number of African-Americans at the University of Michigan — um, there’s a real problem,” she said. “For me, the answer is quite simple: It’s because until we reach that equality in education, we can’t reach equality in the larger society. It starts here and it ends here.” In other words, we’re just not far enough along yet to enact colorblind policies in order to maintain a truly diverse student body that can support equal opportunities for years to come.
She recently delivered the commencement address at Manhattan College in the Bronx where she spoke more about what it means to have the opportunity to advance through education. “As some of you already know, I grew up in the poorest areas of the Bronx in a housing project in the southeastern part of that borough. Some of you may share similar backgrounds.” She emphasized that higher education is not just about financial advancement, but about changing lives. “[What] all the data misses is that education has a more important value than money. It is deeply important to our growth as people and a community.” Growing up as a Latina in the Bronx, this potential to advance is something that she had to learn on her own. “You cannot dream of becoming something you do not know about. You have to learn to dream big. And education exposes you to what the world has to offer, to the possibilities open to you.”
Justice Sotomayor will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame later this summer, along with fellow inductees Gloria Allred, Angela Davis, and Jane Fonda.