Mentor at Princeton Recalls Sotomayor's Evolution

By Peter Winn
Sunday, July 12, 2009

The first time she walked into my office in Princeton University's Dickinson Hall, Sonia Sotomayor was holding a paper she'd written for my Contemporary Latin America course. It was marked up with my corrections in red ink. Spanish was her first language, and many of her errors reflected its syntax. Where she had written "dictatorship of authority," I had scribbled "authoritarian dictatorship."

That sort of mistake is common when students use different languages at home and at school. Less common was Sonia's determination to overcome this challenge; we spoke at length about it. By the time she left my office, Sonia had recognized the mistakes and, more important, why she had made them. For her, she told me recently, it was a "light bulb" moment.

Had I known in the spring of 1973 that this hesitant freshman from the Bronx would be nominated to the Supreme Court 36 years later, I would have taken detailed notes on our conversations and filed them away in anticipation. Unfortunately, all I have are my memories. But Sonia made a strong impression. She was not the best student I taught in my seven years at Princeton -- though she certainly was high on the list -- but she was the one who took greatest advantage of the opportunities there and emerged most transformed by her experience.

Sonia became a frequent visitor to my office, our conversations ranging from the finer points of grammar to the lack of Latino studies at Princeton and the status of Puerto Rico. She ended up taking five courses with me, including her senior thesis. I became her mentor, and I watched her grow into what one might well call a "wise Latina woman." At Princeton, a tentative teenager -- so intimidated that she never spoke in class during her first semester -- became a poised young woman who negotiated successfully with top university administrators on contentious issues such as minority hiring practices. It was also there that Sonia Sotomayor more fully explored her ethnic identity.

After conquering Princeton, she is unlikely to be fazed by another institution legendary for its white alpha males -- the Supreme Court.

My first impressions of Sonia were mixed. She did not radiate charm or magnetism, nor was she polished or cool. But she had an appealing sincerity and directness, and there was something centered about her that was unusual among first-year minority students at Princeton. There were few Hispanic women on campus in 1973 -- the school had begun admitting women only a few years earlier, and Latinos of any gender were rare -- so she was doubly an outsider.

Sonia's intellect had allowed her to excel at the Bronx's Cardinal Spellman High School and gain admission to Princeton, but there was a big gap between her skills -- particularly in writing -- and those of the best students at the university, who had attended elite high schools. She was determined to close the gap. That became our project.

With most students, the time I spent marking up papers was largely wasted. But Sonia took the comments seriously. She sought me out to go over her essays. In each paper, I would focus on a different shortcoming: Spanglish, tenses, passive voice. Taking such constant criticism could not have been easy, but Sonia kept coming back. She even read grammar books during her summer breaks.

Gradually, her essays improved, and by the time she wrote her senior thesis, Sonia had no need to apologize for her writing. Years later, she told me that she was particularly proud of how the second reader of her thesis -- a professor who had not worked closely with her -- had told her it was the best-written senior thesis he had read.

Hispanic students at Princeton in the 1970s had it even harder than black students. The university was confronting its troubled history with African Americans but had no real Latino history. And the town of Princeton had long had an African American community but no Latino community.

Individual Latino students had attended the university before 1972, but Sonia's incoming class contained the first self-consciously Latino cohort at Princeton. They were few in number, young and homesick, without the sounds or tastes of home. All students complain about cafeteria food, but the Latino students' complaints were about identity, not quality -- about how alien Princeton felt to them. Sonia told me she had never been so aware of being different.

In the spring of 1974, she and other students asked me to help create a seminar on the history and politics of Puerto Rico and mainland Puerto Ricans. I was not the ideal person to teach it: I was neither Puerto Rican, nor Latino, nor an expert on Puerto Rico. But Sonia knew I believed that college students should have a role in shaping their education, and I was moved by her blend of reason and emotion.

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