Honoring Women’s History Month, an interview with Ileana Cruz, Aide to Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor

About Ileana

Ileana Cruz-Marden currently serves as Aide to Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the U.S. Supreme Court.  Before working in Justice Sotomayor’s chambers, Ileana interned in the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) Office of South & Central Asia, where she worked with the former Deputy Assistant USTR on evaluating progress in safety standards and workers’ rights in the Bangladeshi Ready-Made Garment industry. While at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Ileana interned with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (under former Chairman John Kerry) through the Cordova-Fernos Internship program and also with the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico through the Ramos-Comas Internship program.  After graduating from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), she was hired to be the first employee of ConPRmetidos, a start-up social enterprise dedicated to developing innovative public-private partnerships that advancing Puerto Rico’s economic development.  Ileana graduated summa cum laude from the UPR in 2013 with a BA in Political Science; she is a 2008 Gates Millennium Scholar and a 2013 Truman Scholar.

What was the biggest challenges you faced while being a student?

I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate for the opportunities I had as a student at the University of Puerto Rico. However, I realized early on in college that too often students at the UPR — or in Puerto Rico for that matter — did not have access to the same scholarship, internship or fellowship opportunities that other students may have had and I saw how this put us at a disadvantage, or at least made it harder for Puerto Rican students to achieve their professional goals. After graduating, I realized that there were many academic and professional opportunities that I missed out on, simply because I didn’t have access to the right information.

Can you share some words of wisdom for current students?

Being a hard worker, having clear goals, a sense of direction, a genuine commitment to serve others – these are qualities that are essential to success.  You can’t control your destiny, but you can place yourself in a good position to receive opportunities and good karma. Students should focus on educating themselves, constantly searching for ways to improve their knowledge and skills, and always finding ways to learn about the world and understand different points of view. Most importantly, students should reflect, early on in their careers, on their own values and guiding principles, and build careers and lifestyles that best suit those ideals. Authenticity is a key part of living a happy, wholehearted life.

How did the programs you participate in help you develop your career and change your life?

I learn about most of these programs by searching online or through word of mouth, either from other students who had participated in these opportunities or from professors who encouraged me to look into them.  I wouldn’t have even considered applying for the Truman Scholarship if it hadn’t been for one of my professors, Dr. Luis Camara, who basically obligated me to apply. He told me: “Ileana, this scholarship is for you.” His support and encouragement made all the difference.

What programs would you recommend for students to apply?

There are so many amazing program students from Puerto Rico can apply for, and it is so important for them to look into them as early as possible as many have specific eligibility requirements!  Programs I have come across include: Gates Millennium Scholarship (undergraduate studies scholarship for high school seniors), Truman Scholarship (graduate studies scholarship for students interested in public service), Gates Cambridge / Rhodes / Marshall scholarships (for students interested in graduate school in the UK), Payne / Rangel Fellowship (graduate studies scholarships for students interested in international relations), Fulbright Scholarship (scholarship to study, conduct research or teach abroad), Boren Fellowship (study abroad scholarship), Luce Scholarship (fully funded fellowship to live and work in Asia), Princeton in Latin America/Asia/Africa (1 year service fellowship), the list goes on and on!

How are you giving back or wanting to give back to the community?

Since I moved to the city, I have been looking into different ways to get more involved with DC community in DC, specifically working with students and youth groups. For the past year, I have been working as a volunteer tutor and mentor with College Bound, a non-profit organization that offers DC public school students tutoring, mentorship opportunities, and academic and career guidance free-of-charge.

What are some of your biggest accomplishments?

  • I was one of the two Gates Millenium Scholars (GMS Scholars) selected from Puerto Rico in 2008. Each year, GMS selects 1,000 high achieving minority students who have demonstrated academic excellence, extracurricular activity involvement, and leadership abilities through participation in community service.
  • I was one of two Truman Scholars selected from Puerto Rico in 2013. The mission of the Truman Scholarship is to recognize college juniors with exceptional leadership potential who are committed to careers in government, the nonprofit or advocacy sectors, education or elsewhere in the public service and to provide them with financial support for graduate study, leadership training, and fellowship with other students who are committed to making a difference through public service.
  • Was selected to participate in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Penn Kemble Youth Forum on Democracy, a year-long non-residential fellowship for aspiring democracy practitioners and foreign policy professionals to engage in networking, education, and training opportunities with counterparts who share a commitment to international engagement and advancing democracy.
  • I was one of 45 scholars selected to take a week-long leadership development journey across Israel, including meetings with senior leadership in business, government, and not-for-profit organizations with a focus on social entrepreneurship and the development of intentional communities.

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