Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor visited Pomona College on Oct. 22. During her visit, Sotomayor taught a master class and attended a small reception with students, faculty, elected officials and alumni before answering questions in a public discussion at Bridges Auditorium, where she was welcomed with a standing ovation and loud cheers.
Justice Sotomayor’s visit was the culmination of Pomona’s First Year Book program. Pomona’s first-year and transfer students read Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World over the summer and discussed it during orientation in August. The book was also made available to all of Pomona’s students, staff and faculty.
“The Orientation Committee [of 2013-14] chose My Beloved World because of its compelling themes of educational access, the impact of education, and the focus on social justice, family, and immigration—themes that the committee, composed of faculty, students, and staff, found very resonant and relevant to the experiences of students at Pomona,” Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum wrote in an email to TSL.
According to Feldblum, Pomona got into contact with Sotomayor’s office in the spring of 2014 to ask her to speak. Because Sotomayor was planning to visit California during this time, she agreed to visit Pomona.
Sotomayor’s master class included 40 students, many of whom are members of organizations that are similar to the organizations that Sotomayor was involved with when she was a student. These organizations included the Draper Center for Community Partnership, Questbridge, Chicano Latino Student Affairs, and IDEAS, the Claremont Colleges’ organization for immigrant rights.
The master class was co-taught by Gilda Ochoa, professor of sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies. Ochoa was chosen for her expertise in topics relevant to Sotomayor’s book, such as educational access and mobility for students of color.
Ochoa said that she wanted to ask Sotomayor questions “about the politics of sharing our stories in the context of the ways that Latinos are either sometimes invisible in dominant narratives, not talked about in the media or, on the flip side, are hyper-visible.”
She emphasized “the powers, the possibilities and maybe even the pitfalls of sharing our stories and how could those stories be used to complicate what people know about Latinos in education” and “how can we do it in a way that doesn’t reinforce people’s stereotypes or lead to even tokenism.”
Students in the master class were also able to ask Sotomayor their own questions.
Jamila Espinosa PO ’16, who attended the master class, said that Sotomayor talked a lot about taking care of oneself during stressful times and staying true to oneself and one’s families, sometimes talking in Spanish.
“It was nice hearing how one can continue and still have family and ties to family origins,” Espinosa said.
Sotomayor’s final event was a public talk facilitated by politics professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky, an expert on constitutional law and the Supreme Court. In addition to facilitating the discussion, Hollis-Brusky also gave a talk about Sotomayor’s memoir during first-year orientation, focusing on the themes of access to education and the need for empathy in politics.
Hollis-Brusky said that she has spent “every spare moment I’ve had for several months, beginning with my preparation for the orientation talk, really rereading [her memoir].”
“I mean, I could show you what my copy of My Beloved World looks like—just post-it notes, and underlines and dog-eared pages,” Hollis-Brusky said. “I watched hours of video of her in interview situations similar to this, trying to get a sense of what questions she responds best to, how long she answers questions.”
Hollis-Brusky estimated that she read and synthesized about 300 questions from the community. She said that many students wrote questions about empathy and the advice Sotomayor would give to students experiencing ‘impostor syndrome,’ and she brought up both subjects during her discussion with Sotomayor. Hollis-Brusky also asked Sotomayor questions about the risk she took by writing a memoir, the collegiality between the Supreme Court Justices and Sotomayor’s advice for college students.
Sotomayor frequently responded to the questions by sharing anecdotes from her life.
“I see whatever empathy I have as just being a part of me,” Sotomayor said during the discussion. “If I don’t understand what motivates you, it’s almost impossible to change your mind… No, I don’t have to agree with you, but I don’t have to vilify you either.”
In the second half of the event, pre-selected students asked her questions, during which time Sotomayor left the stage and started moving through the audience, shaking hands and patting shoulders as she answered them. One student asked about the most difficult decision she has made outside the Supreme Court, while another asked about social media and the public scrutiny.
Jerry Yan PO ’18 asked a question about traditions in the Supreme Court.
“We are not just individuals, we are part of an institution,” Sotomayor said in response. “It’s not the traditions that are important, it’s the institution that created them.”
In response to another question about navigating professional spaces as a first-generation, low-income Latina student, Sotomayor said, “One thing you can’t do is forget where you came from.”
Emily Zheng PO ’19, who asked Sotomayor about the role of religion in her adult life, said that she was very excited when she learned she had been chosen to ask Sotomayor a question.
“I actually celebrated for a good hour,” Zheng said. “It was just really out of the blue, and I was just so excited, I couldn’t contain my emotions.”
Espinosa was especially inspired by Sotomayor’s talks, not only because she got to listen to Sotomayor but also because of the involvement of Ochoa, her mentor. She said that listening to Ochoa speak at Big Bridges and at the master class “really just reaffirmed how excited I am in terms of what I’m choosing to study.”
Jessica Phan PO ’19, who attended Sotomayor’s master class and asked a question at the public event, noted the power and poignancy of Sotomayor’s talk.
“I really admired how open and personal it was. I mean, I know we’ve read it all in the book already, but just hearing it from her made it more sincere,” Phan said.