In an evening of honest—and often humorous—conversation with Arcadia students, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor openly discussed her own growth and insecurities, encouraging students to hold on to their own value and to take advantage of their global liberal arts educations.
“You should use college for its intended purpose, as a liberal arts education that teaches you about people and the world,” said Justice Sotomayor, recommending core classes such as economics, religion, philosophy, and sociology. “Spend your time growing as a person.”
More than 1,400 people filled the Kuch Center’s Alumni Gymnasium on Oct. 22, listening and laughing as Justice Sotomayor wove stories from her youth in the Bronx and legal career with often self-deprecating advice aimed at students at the outset of their university careers.
“Everything scared me about being in college,” she confessed. “It took a while for me to find my own value and to understand that even though my experiences were different they were not unimportant and have their own value.”
Issues of value and navigating change were touchstones throughout the night, as Justice Sotomayor’s visit was in conjunction with Arcadia’s summer reading selection for first-year and transfer students, her memoir My Beloved World. With the Kuch Center audience mostly comprised of these first-year and transfer students, others watched the event streamed live in Stiteler Auditorium.
“Justice Sotomayor’s story, My Beloved World, is an open and honest testament to the power of education and individual determination,” said Dr. Nicolette DeVille Christensen, president of Arcadia. “Justice Sotomayor’s message is one of courage, particularly when faced with obstacles, and it is also one that is rarely told in such genuine and thoughtful language.”
Prompted by questions from Associate Provost John Noakes, Justice Sotomayor recounted stories of her disorientation upon arriving at Princeton as an undergraduate student as well as her advancement in the legal profession. The event began with the Justice and Dr. Noakes sitting on a stage in an “Inside the Actors Studio” manner, but later the Justice walked freely and comfortably among the crowd, touching students’ shoulders and answering questions from a handful of students.
While discussing role models and goal setting, Justice Sotomayor said, “What’s left? Becoming a better Justice,” citing her desires to write shorter opinions, ask fewer questions, and to think more globally about the decisions she makes.
The idea of a global perspective re-emerged at the event’s conclusion, when biology major Victoria Plymouth ’17 asked, “What made Arcadia University stand out for you to come here and discuss your beloved world?”
“That’s easy—your global education program,” said the Justice, who admitted she has choices regarding where she speaks. “I wanted to go to a place that valued that. I think I made a smart choice.”
Judge Marjorie O. Rendell called Sotomayor’s book “a treasure trove of self awareness and understanding” in an introduction to the evening’s message, a theme that reverberated throughout the night. Judge Rendell, who has partnered with Arcadia University and the National Constitution Center to found the Rendell Center for Citizenship and Civics, noted that Sotomayor’s message comes at “such a pivotal time” for students, as they work to craft their own beloved worlds.
This sensitivity to where students are in life and her own self-awareness came to the forefront when the Justice explained how she had become a Supreme Court Justice.
“I’m a turtle,” explained Sotomayor, who said her first goal was to graduate college and then law school. “I set my goals of self-improvement step by step.”
In answer to the question from international studies major Anilyn Bennet ’17, “Do you feel alienated being around people who do not have the same humble beginnings and background as you?,” the Justice joked, “No, some of my best friends are rich people,” but went on to say “No, not at all…you can’t take a brush and write off anyone because of how they grew up.”
The Justice also encouraged students to build a circle of support around themselves, to understand that every choice comes with consequences, to learn to express love and affection, and to cultivate a true sense of value in self.
“Keeping that alive in all of us is probably the biggest challenge in college,” said Justice Sotomayor, a message that resonated with students.
“If she could do it, I can do it,” said pre-law and political science major Amira Elsheikh ’15 after the event. “It’s good to know that I have something greater to offer than other people realize.”
Earlier in the day, Sotomayor met with small groups of undergraduate and graduate students in the Grey Towers Castle to answer their questions, discussing culture, family, and goal-setting.
“She came off as just one of us…someone that we could relate to,” explained Lawrence Lee, a doctoral student in educational leadership. “There was a lot that she said that really resonated with me…how she said it was just a bunch of small goals that got her there.”
Photo by Cindy Graul