Sonia Sotomayor Graduates from Princeton University

When Sotomayor entered Princeton University on a full scholarship, there were few women students and fewer Latinos (about 20). She knew only of the Bronx and Puerto Rico, and she later described her initial Princeton experience as like "a visitor landing in an alien country." She was too intimidated to ask questions for her first year there; her writing and vocabulary skills were weak, and she lacked knowledge in the classics. She put in long hours in the library and over summers, worked with a professor outside class, and gained skills, knowledge, and confidence. She became a moderate student activist and co-chair of the Acción Puertorriqueña organization, which looked for more opportunities for Puerto Rican students and served as a social and political hub for them. She worked in the admissions office, travelling to high schools and lobbying on behalf of her best prospects. Sotomayor focused in particular on faculty hiring and curriculum; at the time, Princeton did not have a single full-time Latino professor nor any class on Latin America. Sotomayor later addressed the curriculum issue in an opinion piece in the college paper: "Not one permanent course in this university now deals in any notable detail with the Puerto Rican or Chicano cultures." After a visit to university president William G. Bowen in her sophomore year did not produce results, the organization filed a formal letter of complaint in April 1974 with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, saying the school discriminated in its hiring and admission practices. Sotomayor told the New York Times at the time that "Princeton is following a policy of benign neutrality and is not making substantive efforts to change," and she wrote opinion pieces for The Daily Princetonian with the same theme. The university began to hire Latino faculty, and Sotomayor established an ongoing dialogue with Bowen. Sotomayor also successfully persuaded historian Peter Winn to create a seminar on Puerto Rican history and politics. Sotomayor joined the governance board of Princeton's Third World Center and served on the university's student-faculty Discipline Committee, which issued rulings on student infractions. She also ran an after-school program for local children and volunteered as an interpreter for Latino patients at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

A history major, Sotomayor received almost all A's in her final two years of college. Sotomayor wrote her senior thesis at Princeton on Luis Muñoz Marín, the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, and on the territory's struggles for economic and political self-determination. The 178-page thesis, "La Historia Ciclica de Puerto Rico: The Impact of the Life of Luis Muñoz Marin on the Political and Economic History of Puerto Rico, 1930–1975", won honorable mention for the Latin American Studies Thesis Prize. As a senior, Sotomayor won the Pyne Prize, the top award for undergraduates, which reflected both strong grades and extracurricular activities. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1976 she was awarded an A.B. from Princeton, graduating summa cum laude. Sotomayor has described her time at Princeton as a life-changing experience.

On August 14, 1976, just after graduating from Princeton, Sotomayor married Kevin Edward Noonan, whom she had dated since high school, in a small chapel at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. She used the married name Sonia Sotomayor de Noonan. He became a biologist and a patent lawyer.

Princeton was integrating not only by race and ethnicity, but also by gender. Ms. Sotomayor was one of 20 Hispanics in her class, students estimate. Princeton had admitted women just a few years earlier, and “husband-hunters,” as one of the alumni still campaigning against their presence called them, were vastly outnumbered at the college.

When the students arrived, they were subject to constant suspicion that they had not earned their slots. “It was a question echoed over and over again, not only verbally but in people’s thoughts,” said Franklin Moore, a former Princeton administrator. Ms. Sotomayor and Mr. Thomas, honors students in high school, considered themselves qualified. But to prove their critics wrong, they studied with special determination.

“We can’t let these people think we just came off the street without anything to offer Princeton,” said Eneida Rosa, another member of the Hispanic contingent, describing how seriously she and Ms. Sotomayor took their studies.