"Learning is a lifelong endeavor," reflected U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Class of 1976, during a conversation with Justice Elena Kagan, Class of 1981. The conversation, moderated by Heather Gerken ’91, the Dean of Yale Law School was part of a conference, “She Roars: Celebrating Women,” at Princeton that celebrated the 50th year of coeducation at Princeton.
As I waited in line for hours to get a ticket for the event earlier that week, I sat beside several of my classmates, watching the live confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh on my laptop. Yet as soon as I arrived to the event, the anxiety of the week was forgotten. Kagan and Sotomayor took the air out of the room.
Kagan and Sotomayor reflected on their time at Princeton—from classes and grades and their senior thesis advisors, to the mentors that they found here. “Find people who are doing things that you admire that you don’t think you can do,” urged Justice Sotomayor.
In many ways, these are parts of the Princeton Experience that are universal; the entire room of alumni and undergraduate attendees could relate to the kind of intellectual development that is earned by making mistakes and learning from them. However, as Sotomayor cautioned, "You can make a mistake once but you shouldn't make it twice."
Kagan and Sotomayor later reflected on the challenge of confronting difficult conversations with frankness and objectivity. They agreed that as members of the highest court in the country, they have never mistaken the minority of women on the court for an impoverishment of their individual authority and power of opinion. Speaking of the women on the Supreme Court, Kagan added, “None of us are shrinking violets.”
In many ways, part of what Princeton seeks to instill in its students are the fledgling roots of this kind of intellectual confidence. In classrooms, in precepts and in conversations with faculty and fellow students, it is instilled in us that our voices matter and that because our voices matter, we must speak up, but we must do so with care.
In the shadow of a tense week, Kagan and Sotomayor demonstrated optimism and hope. As alumnae of the University, they are notable examples of impact and power that women have at Princeton University.