This just in

On Yale & Yale alumni.
Ico print Print | Ico email Email | Facebook | | RSS

'Revolutionary' Yale gives Sotomayor a warm homecoming

Yale College was "too progressive" for Sonia Sotomayor ’79JD when she came to visit from her conservative Catholic high school in 1972, the US Supreme Court justice told a capacity crowd at Woolsey Hall this afternoon.

The Latino students who were hosting her "spent the night talking about revolution," she recalled. As a Puerto Rican girl from a poor family in the Bronx, "I knew Fidel Castro, because he was in the newspapers. But who Che Guevara was, I had no idea. Listening to the talk about revolution and 'down with Whitey,' I thought: 'I'm not going to be comfortable here. It's too progressive for me.'"

Dressed in a simple black sweater, black-and-gray patterned skirt, and high-heeled black boots, Sotomayor spent nearly an hour answering questions from Yale Law professor Judith Resnik in the first of two Yale speeches today. In a polished but down-to-earth style, the justice—who is known for speaking and writing openly about her feelings of inadequacy—outlined her strategies for finding her place in a series of unfamiliar and uncomfortable settings.

Admit your ignorance and find "kindly" people who will explain what you don't yet know, she advised. Use your home community—racial, ethnic, religious—as a "safety net," but "don't let it anchor you." Still, as she moves between the world she grew up in and the one one she now inhabits, "sometimes I feel like I'm not part of either world," she admitted.

Sotomayor didn't talk about why, four years after shying away from Yale's undergraduate revolutionaries, she chose to enroll at Yale Law School. But the discomfort had not evaporated altogether. A summa cum laude graduate of Princeton ("When I got summa cum laude, I didn't know what it was. I had to go to the dictionary to look it up."), Sotomayor nonetheless waited until her third year at Yale Law before she voluntarily spoke in class.

As Yale and its peers continue to wrestle with whether and how to recruit low-income students who wouldn't otherwise apply to elite colleges, Sotomayor offered a low-key but emphatic defense of the affirmative action that brought her from Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx to the Ivy League.

Her friend Ken was probably the first Cardinal Spellman grad to go to the Ivies, Sotomayor said. Ken urged Sonia to apply; because an Asian American kid was doing well academically, Princeton took a chance on a Puerto Rican girl. She also did spectacularly well, paving the way for white Cardinal Spellman students as well. So affirmative action opened doors not only for people of color but for others coming from schools that were not traditional Ivy feeders, Sotomayor argued.

Addressing the ornate concert hall packed with Yalies—who showered Sotomayor with standing ovations at the event's start and finish—Resnik ended the conversation on a similar note: "We're all the lucky beneficiaries," she said, "of institutions like this opening their doors more widely."

Filed under Sonia Sotomayor, Law School, affirmative action, Judith Resnik
The comment period has expired.