THE BLOG

Two Hours and 22 Minutes with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

18/11/2015 12:36 GMT | Updated 17/11/2016 10:12 GMT

SETTING: Our Beloved World

CHARACTERS: All the people in it

SCENE: Pomona College, Claremont, California

Thursday, 3:30 pm. I walked out of my international relations class, trying to put aside the heaviness sparked by the discussion on the Rwanda genocide and other ethnic conflicts. The first floor of Carnegie Hall -- that classy building resembling the White House to some degree, and home to the politics and economics departments at Pomona College -- was quiet. It was a perfect autumn afternoon in Southern California: the sky was azure, the breeze mild, the temperature moderate. And I was to meet a United States Supreme Court Justice in roughly fifteen minutes.

The venue was right across from Carnegie. My parents, who were visiting from China, waved to me as I crossed the street. In front of me stood Alexander Hall. Inside it, I would find the Justice's marshals evenly distributed across the space, each looking very serious.

"Are you the Justice's student escort? This way."

Yes. I arrived at the area next to the President's Office. The door was not yet wide open enough for me to catch a glimpse of the Justice herself. And so prolonged my eagerness and anticipation.

3: 51 pm. She was walking out of the room with a personable smile, after much suspense. Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice. Wow!

We shook hands and exchanged greetings -- The camera captured this magical moment. Justice Sotomayor asked me about my year and major, shared her perspective on double majoring, and talked about her "eventful flight" the night before as well as her visit to the Sotomayor School in Los Angles in the morning, just prior to her visit on our campus. We walked side by side.

I did not feel nervous at all as I gave that brief two-minute tour of Alexander Hall and Smith Campus Center for her; rather, I felt extremely comfortable, and adored how the Justice was so curious about everything around us, constantly asking questions like "What's that building?", "Where are you taking me now?" and "And what do you use that room for?". I revere the sense of curiosity that one could easily see as a recurring element throughout her autobiography My Beloved World, a candid reflection on her life prior to the Supreme Court of the United States. Although too much curiosity may kill the cat, sufficient curiosity, as Justice Sotomayor has demonstrated from her early childhood, could be a positive personality attribute to have.

Truly, even though my time to interact with her this closely was very limited, I could safely agree with the popular notion of how she is known as "the People's Judge" of the SCOTUS (just to name two examples, it might be difficult to imagine a SCOTUS Justice shopping at Costco or making an appearance on ABC's daytime talkshow The View in front of 2-3 million viewers, but these were precisely what Justice Sotomayor did).

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed everything the Justice had shared with the Pomona College community later in the day about her identity as a latina of color sitting on the bench and her experience as a former first generation and low income college student, one of the themes that stood out to me the most was her candid reflection of the "Imposter Syndrome".

Justice Sotomayor, who might come across to anyone as extremely confident, admitted that she did not always feel a sense of belonging when she started school at Princeton, Yale Law School and during her career. For her, Princeton's gothic architecture was a fantasy, so different from the environment she came from. Fortunately, like many of us, the Justice was able to overcome these initial difficulties with others' support. Somewhat surprisingly, she also mentioned the worsening of the imposter syndrome when she joined the Supreme Court, citing her colleagues's jaw-dropping level of intelligence and breadth of knowledge, ranging from the Constitution to opera.

Although our personal backgrounds can be very different from that of the Justice, we certainly can identify with her, for there are many challenges that we embrace in life: academically, professionally, and personally. We can feel intimidated by our long to-do lists, a tough assignment, or a strange surrounding that we do not perceive as genuinely welcoming. Yet, as the Justice puts it (having walked off-stage to join the audience to engage with us in a more intimate fashion), "you're there for a reason -- you're there to do something that's unique to you". It doesn't matter if we are cultured differently or have grown up in a distinct way. From what I learned from the Justice, we need to compare us to ourselves, not to others around us.

In our beloved world, there is a giant marble temple which, curiously, is not as dated as it looks. 36 steps lead up to this prominent symbol of justice itself in a nation. Yet, for individuals aspiring to sit on the Bench, the steps are innumerable. For more than a hundred years, only white, generally wealthy men were able to reach that Bench; over the past decades, women and people of colour have joined men to become Supreme Court Justices.

The Court today is, in many ways, still homogenous. The Justices all have an Ivy League education and all served exclusively as judges in their career -- unlike previous Supreme Court Justices who served as politicians for many years. Whilst one may argue that this homogeneity is good, it simultaneously limits the Supreme Court's connections with politics outside of this marble temple. As the first woman of colour to obtain this much coveted position, Justice Sotomayor is an inspiring trailblazer who bridges the gap between the Court and the public by staying connected with her communities: her beloved world.

Our beloved world.