To the crowd in Richardson Auditorium on the conference’s final evening, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 was a rock star. Throngs of students lined up long beforehand, hoping for a seat in the hall that already was packed with returning alumni.
At the start of a 90-minute conversation with Margarita Rosa ’74, an old friend, Sotomayor asked, “Did you ever think, back when we were here, that you would ever see a day when this hall was filled with Latinos?”
Despite their different journeys to Princeton, Sotomayor suggested that all the conference attendees had something in common. “What we got was a moment that changed our lives. Someone or something happened to give us that break.” She credited her high school debate coach, who urged her to apply to Ivy League colleges. “How many of us in this room,” Sotomayor then asked, “are actively, every day, looking for that life that we’re going to touch?”
She acknowledged that she had arrived on campus without the educational background of many of her classmates. During her freshman year, Sotomayor told a classmate how disorienting she found Princeton.
“You’re like Alice in Wonderland,” the friend observed.
“Who is Alice?” asked Sotomayor, who had never heard of the Lewis Carroll story.
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“Most of us confuse ignorance, not knowing something because we have not been exposed to it ... with being stupid,” Sotomayor explained. “And because we equate the two, we don’t figure out early on that true dumbness in life is the unwillingness to admit ignorance.”
Taking questions from the audience, Sotomayor roamed the aisles, giving hugs and posing for photographs. Although Rosa pre-emptively read a statement that the justice does not comment on issues or controversies that might come before the court, the first questioner asked if she had any passions she could not engage in because of her position.
“Yeah,” Sotomayor responded. “Politics.”