Sonia Sotomayor’s Wisdom and the Pandemic

May 13, 2020

Published in the May 13, 2020 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly(link is external).

Justice Sotomayor delivering remarks at Alumni Day in 2014.

Denise Applewhite

In these trying days of viral contagion and social distancing, I find myself taking new inspiration from the address that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 delivered when she accepted the Woodrow Wilson Award on Alumni Day in 2014. During that speech, she recommended expanding Princeton’s informal motto—“in the nation’s service”— to include the phrase “in the service of humanity,” a change we soon embraced.

Justice Sotomayor’s full version of the phrase was “in the service of humanity, one person and one act at a time.” Her point was that some noble forms of service are personal and humble rather than grand or glorious. She spoke movingly about her own mother, who was a nurse and a caregiver to her neighbors.

Justice Sotomayor’s insight is especially apt to the public health crisis confronting our University, our country, and, indeed, our world. Our greatest heroes right now are the doctors, nurses, and others working long hours and risking their own health to fight the pandemic and save the lives of those it afflicts. These heroes include many Princeton alumni; you can find some of their stories at and on the University’s social media channels, using #TigersHelping.

Justice Sotomayor’s concept of service “one person and one act at a time” also describes the essential work being done on our campus by Princeton University employees, including our dining services and custodial staff. We continue to house around 390 undergraduates who could not safely return home. No one can legally operate a sit-down restaurant or a dining hall in New Jersey right now, but our Campus Dining team is able to provide students with “grab-and-go” boxed meals to keep them as healthy as possible.

Many Princeton faculty and staff want to work with the University to fight the epidemic. Consistent with the “stayat- home” order governing New Jersey, they are finding creative ways to do so. Vice Provost Paul LaMarche leads an administrative group coordinating these efforts, which include organizing on-campus blood drives with the American Red Cross and producing face shields to protect and extend the life of personal protective equipment.

Our Campus Dining team is providing “grab-and-go” meals to students on campus.

Denise Applewhite

Faculty researchers are pitching in, too. Epidemiologists Bryan Grenfell and Jessica Metcalf, both in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, have been advising public officials, University administrators, and others. Chemist Joshua Rabinowitz and molecular biologist Martin Wühr are collaborating with the University of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus research center to explore potential metabolic therapies, and computer scientist Kyle Jamieson is working on contract tracing using wireless location data. While much on-campus research activity has been halted as I write this column, these projects and a small number of others continue because they are deemed essential given the focus on combating the pandemic.

In some ways, though, Justice Sotomayor’s wisdom seems most poignantly applicable to the “social distancing” obligation that each of us now shares with almost every other person on the planet. By avoiding contact with other people not in our households, we cut the train of viral transmission, thereby serving humanity, “one person and one act at a time.”

This isn’t easy for any of us. Princetonians love to gather. We have a fierce desire to “come together” and fight to make the world a better place, taking inspiration and comfort from one another. But “coming together” is precisely what we cannot do.

Fortunately, our remarkable alumni community is finding many ways to interact, draw upon one another’s spirit, and build solidarity without proximity. Eventually, we will embrace again in person and celebrate the bonds that unite us. In the meantime, I am confident that Tigers everywhere will continue to do the small things that make a difference—staying home as much as we can, donning cloth masks as we go shopping, and striving “with one accord” to fight this pernicious virus “one person and one act at a time.”