Justice Sotomayor's Inspiring Life Lessons

August 28, 2017

Supreme Court Justice Sonia SotomayorSonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Associate Justice, is a powerful and respected judge with an impressive background that includes a BA from Princeton, graduating summa cum laude (with highest honors) and a JD from Yale Law School. Her background also includes an alcoholic father, poverty, her own juvenile diabetes, and parents who spoke limited English.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, this year we’ll be facing many positive developments and, simultaneously, many significant challenges. It will be a year of change and transition that will not always be easy. I’ve turned to Justice Sotomayor’s life lessons and words of wisdom that I hope will inspire our SRJC community as they have inspired me.

I have never, ever focused on the negative of things. I always look at the positive.

For me, it’s easy to focus on the positive, as Justice Sotomayor describes. My father died when I was only five years old, and that was tragic, a wrenching loss for me that, of course, I couldn’t really understand at the time. But the love and dedication of my mother and family kept us all going. In the ensuing years, I learned that focusing on the positive, while not denying potential negatives, helped me overcome all kinds of challenges.

Today, it’s easy for me to focus on countless positive, exciting developments at SRJC. On the Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses, Measure H bond-funded building and renovation has started that will help our faculty create better learning experiences for our students. An extra $34 million for our Science Building in Santa Rosa was approved recently by Governor Brown, thanks to support from State Senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, State Assemblymember Marc Levine, our Board of Trustees, Director of Capital Projects Leigh Sata, and many others inside and outside SRJC. We focused on the positive - what we thought could be done, not what couldn’t, and we prevailed. This will make a tremendous difference in how far we can go to help our students, faculty and staff.

Recently, we were awarded a High School Equivalency Program (HEP) grant of $2.4 million over five years to help migrant farmworkers move forward into higher education, training and employment. HEP funding improves lives significantly in our community. My eyes fill with tears when I hear students’ stories and dreams at the HEP graduation each year. U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson was instrumental in helping us obtain that grant, and I thank him.

I’ve recently had the privilege of hiring many exceptionally talented new faculty, staff and administrators. The retiring generation has left its mark on SRJC, reinforcing our near century-long legacy of excellence. Now this new generation is quickly making a difference, at once being inspired by and part of the most diverse SRJC that we have ever known.

Of course, I feel positive because I can point to individual students of great achievement like Vanessa Nava, our first winner of the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, and Drew Sipple, the California Community College 2017 state male swimmer of the year, now attending University of the Pacific on an athletic and academic scholarship this fall. And faculty member Dr. Nancy Chinn, Disability Resources Department, whose sabbatical research study of acquired brain injury was called “substantial contribution to the field” and “significant for its public health contribution” by The British Medical Journal Open Sport & Exercise Medicine.

Yes, I feel positive about SRJC’s 100th Anniversary, to be celebrated in many ways from January through December, 2018. And we are on the honor roll of Great Colleges to Work For® for the fifth year in a row.

I feel so proud and hopeful when nearly every day, as I am wearing the SRJC logo at a farmer’s market, a community event, or anywhere in the county, people come up to me with pride because they or their children are alumni, they worked at SRJC, or they have been long-time supporters.

I am an unapologetically positive about SRJC. And I’m also a realist. We’re facing major challenges at SRJC.

There are uses to adversity, and they don't reveal themselves until tested. Whether it's serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unexpected strengths.

While Justice Sotomayor was speaking here of her personal challenges, the same conclusion can apply to SRJC’s serious problems today. With the recently announced changes for DACA students, our students are deeply concerned, and we want to provide them all the support we can, even though we can’t change their legal status ourselves. But we are not alone in this. Going forward, we will need to tap strengths like connection.

Our $4 million deficit threatens SRJC’s present and future, so we have taken significant steps to reduce it. Recent budget reductions were painful, and many departments now are figuring out how to proceed after losing short-term non-continuing staff. Going forward, we will need to tap strengths like creativity.

Enrollment declines are the biggest factor in our current deficits, and we are doing all in our power to create effective, collaborative solutions to reverse those declines. The current housing crisis in Sonoma County, a strong economy, and online competition are all elements that need to be addressed. Some forward-thinking solutions for SRJC will take time; others may be effective more quickly. We will need to tap strengths like collegiality to address these complex issues.

Many of our positive developments are accompanied by challenges. We’re excited to get started on Measure H construction, but that has led to temporary loss of some convenient parking spaces. Innovative new leaders have joined us, but that can result in challenging transitions. And let’s support our new faculty, staff and administrators – we were all new at one point. We will need to tap strengths like open-mindedness and hope.

I don't prejudge issues. I come to every case with an open mind. Every case is new to me.

In facing the year ahead, how do we stay open to new ideas, while we maintain our traditions? How do we stay positive and hopeful in the face of challenges?

I mentioned connection above. Some of our challenges involve the U.S. government and alone, we would have little ability to influence them. But we are joining with thousands of people, from the Chancellor’s office and college presidents to legislators and immigration activists across the country, to ensure we can protect our DACA and Dream students.

I mentioned creativity above. Our human brains are capable of amazing feats when we allow them the ability and time to imagine and create. Growth in every field depends on creativity and that includes solving SRJC’s financial, enrollment and other challenges. Creativity draws from our past experiences and knowledge. We are able to honor traditions while moving forward creatively.

I mentioned collegiality. The word “collegiality” is related to both college and colleague. It means that as colleagues, we share responsibility. I believe that we will need to work together, acknowledging each other’s good intentions and ideas, if we are going to solve our problems.

I mentioned open-mindedness and hope. I believe it is essential that we adopt Justice Sotomayor’s open-mindedness as we move forward this year. When we are able to do so, we can see new possibilities, and that leads to hope. That, in turn, enables us to keep going, to create the college that will help our students and community.

For this year and the next 100 years, I feel positive about SRJC’s continued bright prospects. Here’s how we do it: honor traditions, engage our creative selves, practice connection and collegiality (especially when it’s hardest), acknowledge our differences and challenges, yet still focus with hope on the positive. Let’s use Justice Sotomayor’s life lessons, and our own, to continue building on our legacy of excellence.


Frank Chong Signature