Sonia Sotomayor - College and Law School

College and Law School

When Sotomayor entered Princeton University on a full scholarship, there were few women students and fewer Latinos (about 20). She knew only of the Bronx and Puerto Rico, and she later described her initial Princeton experience as like "a visitor landing in an alien country." She was too intimidated to ask questions for her first year there; her writing and vocabulary skills were weak, and she lacked knowledge in the classics. She put in long hours in the library and over summers, worked with a professor outside class, and gained skills, knowledge, and confidence. She became a moderate student activist and co-chair of the Acción Puertorriqueña organization, which looked for more opportunities for Puerto Rican students and served as a social and political hub for them. She worked in the admissions office, traveling to high schools and lobbying on behalf of her best prospects. Sotomayor focused in particular on faculty hiring and curriculum; at the time, Princeton did not have a single full-time Latino professor nor any class on Latin America. Sotomayor later addressed the curriculum issue in an opinion piece in the college paper: "Not one permanent course in this university now deals in any notable detail with the Puerto Rican or Chicano cultures." After a visit to university president William G. Bowen in her sophomore year did not produce results, the organization filed a formal letter of complaint in April 1974 with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, saying the school discriminated in its hiring and admission practices. Sotomayor told The New York Times at the time that "Princeton is following a policy of benign neutrality and is not making substantive efforts to change," and she wrote opinion pieces for the Daily Princetonian with the same theme. The university began to hire Latino faculty, and Sotomayor established an ongoing dialogue with Bowen. Sotomayor also successfully persuaded historian Peter Winn to create a seminar on Puerto Rican history and politics. Sotomayor joined the governance board of Princeton's Third World Center and served on the university's student–faculty Discipline Committee, which issued rulings on student infractions. She also ran an after-school program for local children and volunteered as an interpreter for Latino patients at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

A history major, Sotomayor received almost all A's in her final two years of college. Sotomayor wrote her senior thesis at Princeton on Luis Muñoz Marín, the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, and on the territory's struggles for economic and political self-determination. The 178-page work, "La Historia Ciclica de Puerto Rico: The Impact of the Life of Luis Muñoz Marin on the Political and Economic History of Puerto Rico, 1930–1975", won honorable mention for the Latin American Studies Thesis Prize. As a senior, Sotomayor won the Pyne Prize, the top award for undergraduates, which reflected both strong grades and extracurricular activities. In 1976, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and awarded an A.B. from Princeton, graduating summa cum laude. Sotomayor has described her time at Princeton as a life-changing experience.

On August 14, 1976, just after graduating from Princeton, Sotomayor married Kevin Edward Noonan, whom she had dated since high school, in a small chapel at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. She used the married name Sonia Sotomayor de Noonan. He became a biologist and a patent lawyer.

In the fall of 1976, Sotomayor entered Yale Law School, again on a scholarship. This, too, was a place with very few Latinos. She fit in well and was known as a hard worker, but she was not considered among the top stars of her class. Yale General Counsel and professor José A. Cabranes was an early mentor to her and helped her to understand how she could be successful within "the system". She became an editor of the Yale Law Journal and was also managing editor of the student-run Yale Studies in World Public Order publication, which is now known as the Yale Journal of International Law. Sotomayor published a law review note on the effect of possible Puerto Rican statehood on the island's mineral and ocean rights. She was a semi-finalist in the Barristers Union mock trial competition. She was co-chair of a group for Latin, Asian, and Native American students, and in her advocacy pushed for hiring more Hispanics for the faculty of the law school.

Following her second year, she gained a job as a summer associate with the prominent New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Her performance was not adequate and she did not receive an offer for a full-time position, a failure that would long bother her. In her third year, she filed a formal complaint against the established Washington, D.C., law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge for suggesting during a recruiting dinner that she was at Yale only via affirmative action. Sotomayor refused to be interviewed by the firm further and filed her complaint with a faculty–student tribunal, which ruled in her favor. Her action triggered a campus-wide debate, and news of the firm's subsequent December 1978 apology made The Washington Post. In 1979, she was awarded a J.D. from Yale Law School. She was admitted to the New York Bar in 1980.

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