Peter Winn: Education of Sonia Sotomayor

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Peter Winn was Sotomayor's thesis advisor at Princeton. He now teaches at Tufts.]

The first time she walked into my office in Princeton University's Dickinson Hall, Sonia Sotomayor was holding a paper she'd written for my Contemporary Latin America course. It was marked up with my corrections in red ink. Spanish was her first language, and many of her errors reflected its syntax. Where she had written "dictatorship of authority," I had scribbled "authoritarian dictatorship."

That sort of mistake is common when students use different languages at home and at school. Less common was Sonia's determination to overcome this challenge; we spoke at length about it. By the time she left my office, Sonia had recognized the mistakes and, more important, why she had made them. For her, she told me recently, it was a "light bulb" moment.

Had I known in the spring of 1973 that this hesitant freshman from the Bronx would be nominated to the Supreme Court 36 years later, I would have taken detailed notes on our conversations and filed them away in anticipation. Unfortunately, all I have are my memories. But Sonia made a strong impression. She was not the best student I taught in my seven years at Princeton -- though she certainly was high on the list -- but she was the one who took greatest advantage of the opportunities there and emerged most transformed by her experience.

Sonia became a frequent visitor to my office, our conversations ranging from the finer points of grammar to the lack of Latino studies at Princeton and the status of Puerto Rico. She ended up taking five courses with me, including her senior thesis. I became her mentor, and I watched her grow into what one might well call a "wise Latina woman." At Princeton, a tentative teenager -- so intimidated that she never spoke in class during her first semester -- became a poised young woman who negotiated successfully with top university administrators on contentious issues such as minority hiring practices. It was also there that Sonia Sotomayor more fully explored her ethnic identity.

After conquering Princeton, she is unlikely to be fazed by another institution legendary for its white alpha males -- the Supreme Court.

My first impressions of Sonia were mixed. She did not radiate charm or magnetism, nor was she polished or cool. But she had an appealing sincerity and directness, and there was something centered about her that was unusual among first-year minority students at Princeton. There were few Hispanic women on campus in 1973 -- the school had begun admitting women only a few years earlier, and Latinos of any gender were rare -- so she was doubly an outsider.

Sonia's intellect had allowed her to excel at the Bronx's Cardinal Spellman High School and gain admission to Princeton, but there was a big gap between her skills -- particularly in writing -- and those of the best students at the university, who had attended elite high schools. She was determined to close the gap. That became our project....
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