A standing ovation. Cheers, claps; claps, cheers, followed by even more cheers and claps…
Each year, Pomona College selects a “first-year book” that incoming first-years discuss with peers and faculty members during Orientation Week, and invites the author to visit campus in October. This year’s assigned book was none other than Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.
Although primarily designed to help new students, who have just gotten to know some of their new classmates and professors, to engage in “deeper” conversations, the first-year book also connects the College community as a whole through intellectual dialogues. By sharing unique perspectives shaped by their academic interests and personal backgrounds, professors and students exchange ideas, often opening up new possibilities for interpreting the same book, challenging each other to think more critically.
Prof. Gilda Ochoa (who led an one-hour master class, where she interviewed the Justice and facilitated students’ questions), for example, devoted much time and energy “thinking about, and even dreaming of the conversation”. Having taught courses in sociology and Chicano/a Latino/a studies for more than 20 years, she found certain themes in My Beloved World intimately related to her work. When reading the memoir, Prof. Ochoa watched for such ideas as notions of authenticity, the language of choice, how language is intimately tied to identity formation, counter-narratives, and forms of resistance both at the individual and institutional levels, as well as the Justice’s desire to become a lawyer as a means of addressing structural disparities.
When you have 2,200 people sitting together in an auditorium, you bring the community together on even a physical level. On 22nd October, 2015, words could not capture the sheer level of excitement as the Pomona College community warmly welcomed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to campus. That evening, everyone — students, faculty, alumni, family and staff — congregated here with the same intention: to listen to the story of an amazing woman, and to be inspired by her.
Indeed, walking towards centre stage at the Bridges Auditorium that evening was one of the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court — a tradition-bound institution shrouded in mystery and cloaked in secrecy. Sitting in the audience, meanwhile, were many jovial college students in our late teenage years or early 20s. One might see an invisible gap between the person standing onstage and the sitting audience offstage, with the former already at what is arguably the highest level of success an individual could possibly achieve in the nation’s realm of law, and the latter at an early stage of our lives — a starting point in many ways, diligently devouring any source of knowledge available to us whilst dreaming of a future that still remains somewhat of a mystery.
Yet, despite her commanding presence, Justice Sotomayor was one of us. Whilst the Justice is a crucial part of the Supreme Court, which might seem like another world, she simultaneously remains very much part of our own world. As the first woman of colour among Supreme Court Justices, Sonia Sotomayor has a distinct background from that of her colleagues. To name a few, she grew up in a poor family with an alcoholic father, suffered from diabetes from her childhood, and was a first-generation college student. Whilst she shares an Ivy League education and great passion for the law with her colleagues, her modest upbringing is almost a different world from her colleagues’. The initial insecurity and uncertainty of transitioning from one world to the other can be identified by many students and faculty members.
Prof. Amanda Hollis-Brusky, a scholar specialising in constitutional law and legal institutions who interviewed the Justice onstage during the public event, “felt those fears, lived those fears”, and in some ways, still does. Unlike many of her colleagues at the politics department, she grew up in an apolitical family of divorced parents. Like Justice Sotomayor, she came from a tumultuous home life and was a first-generation college student. When Prof. Hollis-Brusky met the Justice in person, she thanked her for “opening up so bravely”, which gave her the courage to share her own story with the entire Class of 2019 during Orientation despite the difficulties of such undertaking.
The public event featured a conversation between Justice Sotomayor and Prof. Hollis-Brusky, who started the dialogue by labelling the book as “pretty radical despite the lovely title and the smiling, disarming portrait of you that we see on the cover”. The Justice admitted the amount of risk she took by exposing herself to the public, which would render her vulnerable.
Not only is it radical for a sitting Supreme Court Justice to write so openly and intimately about her path to the Supreme Court, the purpose of the book itself is also groundbreaking. According to Prof. Hollis-Brusky, “although told through the deeply personal – through stories, anecdotes, and recollections – I think this book is actually deeply political; and purposefully so.” As a Supreme Court Justice, Sotomayor cannot take a political stance. She cannot say that she endorses Affirmative Action, for instance. Yet, writing of the book itself can be considered a political project, a strong endorsement of the kinds of programs that brought her in.
To quote a powerful metaphor from My Beloved World, “The first to scale the ivy-covered wall against the odds, just one step ahead of ourselves, we would hold the ladder steady for the next kid with more talent than opportunity.” My Beloved World is partly about access: by taking the risk of writing it, Justice Sotomayor is offering access to students of underrepresented backgrounds to achieve their own dreams.
Zooming out a little to examine the bigger picture, we can see how one should never mistake opportunity for talent, nor let the lack of opportunity be mistaken for the lack of talent. Not only is this message important for us as students exploring all the different possibilities in life, but it also applies to our beloved world at large.