Justice Sonia Sotomayor Inspires the DU Community
For an afternoon, students of all ages had an opportunity to hear what is possible for them if they work hard and don’t allow obstacles, challenges and barriers to keep them from achieving their goals and dreams.
On Friday, Nov. 5, the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) and University Libraries hosted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for a series of virtual events. The associate justice was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009 as the first Latina and only the third woman to serve as a member of the court.
Three different events spanned the afternoon, beginning with a law student dialogue with Sotomayor. More than 200 students registered for the in-depth conversation, moderated by Alexi Freeman, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion and director of externships and social justice initiatives at the Sturm College of Law.
“It’s wonderful that Justice Sotomayor recognizes her role but also wants to engage and inspire students,” Freeman says. “I think it is incredibly rare when a person reaches the pinnacle in any profession and still wants to speak about the profession and their journey in a down-to-earth and real way.”
Eighteen participants, ranging from first-year to part-time professional law students, had the opportunity to introduce themselves to Sotomayor and talk about the area of law that most interests them. Several students also had the chance to ask the justice questions. These covered everything from why she wanted to be a judge, her experiences as a woman on the Supreme Court, and what she wishes she knew in law school that she knows today. In her remarks and responses, Sotomayor stressed the value of externships, particularly with judges, and the importance of public service.
“The beauty of public service is that you can give in so many ways; you just have to look at yourself and say what issues are most important to you,” Sotomayor said. “Government lawyers are not excused from giving just because they are in government. Everyone should find time to give outside of their jobs.”
The student event was followed by a public event that had more than 1,000 registrants. Freeman and Bruce Smith, dean of Denver Law, moderated a conversation that focused on increased diversity in the legal profession and what law schools can do to shape the practice of law. Sotomayor fielded a few questions from students, including one from Jose Rosales, who asked the justice for advice for the upcoming generation of diverse attorneys.
“It’s amazing how just a few words can really make a difference,” Rosales says. “She gives diverse students like me encouragement that we can do anything because of what she has accomplished.”
The final event provided an opportunity for Sotomayor to interact with younger kids, many of whom have been part of GSPP’s Caring for yoU and Baby (CUB) Clinic. Children and their families enjoyed a discussion about Sotomayor’s children’s title, “Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You,” published in 2019. She wrote the book because of her experience as a child having to live as a diabetic. The book was her way of sharing the stories of kids who, like her, were different but were brave because of how they lived their lives.
“Her book is the best representation I have seen of the values and the work that our clinic is trying to put forward,” says Tracy Vozar, who moderated the discussion with fellow GSPP professor Hetty Pazos. “It has a real emphasis on diversity in all of its different forms and also acceptance of one another’s differences and eventually moving past acceptance to celebration of one another’s differences and how together we create a more beautiful garden.”
In addition to the book being read in both English and Spanish, three kids ages 6, 7 and 14 were invited to ask Sotomayor questions about her book, her work as a judge and how stereotypes color our country’s perspectives on diversity.
“I think it was incredibly important to have Justice Sotomayor there for everyone from the children to the law students,” Freeman says. “They were all able to see that there is a pathway for them to accomplish their goals. By hosting events like this, while it does not change any statistics tomorrow, I do think it’s important for people to see and hear folks who serve as models for what is possible.”