Olivia Sanchez has an extra bounce in her step these days. The Appalachian State University freshman, who is the first in her family to attend college, received a personal note from a woman she greatly admires – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Sanchez wrote to Sotomayor as part of a First Year Seminar course designed especially for first-generation college students participating in Appalachian’s Student Support Services program. Each student was encouraged to write to a “first” who interested them in various fields – from sports, the U.S. government, academia and law – and ask for their insight on overcoming obstacles.
Sanchez chose Sotomayor, the first Hispanic woman to ascend to the position of Supreme Court justice, and to seek her advice for a young, half-Hispanic woman with dreams of her own.
Surprisingly, Sotomayor wrote back.
In her letter, Sotomayor told Sanchez, “I think you have already found the key to overcoming the obstacles that you will face. That key is knowing that if you work hard you can overcome anything. It also means relying upon your family and friends for inspiration and support. I feel humbled in knowing that I have served a part in inspiring you and others in the Hispanic community. Continue your studies, ask your professors for help when you need it and dream big.”
Receiving a personal note from such a busy, high-profile woman stunned Sanchez, who lives in Newland. “I love her because she had ways of helping Latinos throughout her career. She inspired me to come to college, and she has helped me see where I want to help my people, too,” Sanchez said.
In her letter to Sotomayor, Sanchez said she plans to major in criminal justice at Appalachian and become a probation officer or paralegal. Her family inspires her daily, she wrote, to “do better, to be better, and to believe in myself.”
Sanchez lives at home with her mom, 15-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother. Their father, who was born in Mexico, lives in Morganton.
As a young woman striving to reach her full potential, Sanchez said the most touching part of Sotomayor’s response were her words telling Sanchez she already holds the key to success. “I asked her how did she become great and she said I’d already found out how,” she said.
While many of her Hispanic classmates dropped out of high school, Sanchez said she’s motivated to get her college degree and inspire others, just as Sotomayor inspires her.
“My dad’s side of the family is legal now, but they went through a lot to become naturalized citizens. They suffered for it. That’s what keeps me going – to help other Hispanics,” she said.
What will she do with the letter?
“I’m going to frame it and hang it on my wall,” Sanchez said. “As my mom says, this is big.”
In addition to the letter from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, students in Janet Beck’s First Year Seminar course received responses from:
“I wanted my students to understand the possibilities inherent in going first,” Beck said of the writing project. “‘Firsts’ are given a significant opportunity which can be exhilarating and joyous. At the same time, being ‘first’ is challenging and can sometimes be downright unsettling.”
Students said they learned a person doesn’t have to be famous to become a “first,” but rather someone who simply works hard, doesn’t let anyone deter them from their dreams, has patience and is willing to overcome any obstacle.
As Sylvester Croom, the first African-American to coach in the SEC and who now helps coach the St. Louis Rams, wrote to freshman Shawn Cassell, “Being the first in your family to pursue a higher education is very significant. I understand the challenges, but remember despite whatever opposition, distractions or detractors you may face, if you stay the course, the rewards will be worth it.”