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2nd time's a charm as student, role model meet; For Jaleesa Dukes, writing to Sotomayor earns a visit

Jaleesa Dukes found herself waiting nervously in Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's chambers Thursday when she heard a voice that's familiar to the nation's top jurists and lawyers, but not so often heard by a 20-year-old student at Daemen College.

"Is Jaleesa out there?" Sotomayor cried out.

She certainly was.

And so culminated Dukes' improbable journey to meet her role model.

Dukes, who grew up five minutes away from where Sotomayor was raised, wrote to the justice twice in the last year.

The young woman poured her heart out, talking about her family struggles growing up and the inspiration she drew from Sotomayor -- who, just like Dukes, attended Catholic schools and grew up in public housing in the Bronx.

Sotomayor responded earlier this year "and said she loved my letter," Dukes said.

And in April, via email, Dukes heard back from the justice's staff, inviting her to Washington for a visit -- one that Dukes will remember forever.

"When I saw her, it was mesmerizing," Dukes said in an interview in the Supreme Court cafeteria after meeting Sotomayor and touring the court. "I couldn't believe it. I was trying to focus, but inside, I was, like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe I'm meeting her.' "

It all happened because Dukes has admired Sotomayor since her nomination to the high court in 2009, and because of the inspiration of one of her professors.

"She went through some of the same barriers I went through and probably will go through as I continue my journey," Dukes said. "If she made it, I can make it. Any other woman and minority can make it. It's just an inspiration."

Dukes got the courage to write to her role model after hearing one of her favorite college professors, longtime Buffalo civic activist Kevin P. Gaughan, tell of how he talked his way into Harvard after blowing his first interview there.

"I wrote a letter to her, and I told Professor Gaughan, and he said, 'You know, she's going to write you back,' " Dukes said. "I was, like, 'No, she's not. She's too busy. She probably gets thousands of letters.' "

Months went by after Dukes' first letter, and she heard nothing.

So then Dukes -- whose parents are separated and who lives with her grandmother in the Bronx when she's not at Daemen -- wrote again. She told Sotomayor of the same family issues she detailed in the first letter but prefaced it with the phrase: "I don't know if you received my first letter."

Whether she did or not, Sotomayor responded, first in a letter and then in an email inviting Dukes to Washington.

"The Justice was touched by your words," a clerk in Sotomayor's chambers wrote in that email.

That was clear, too, from Thursday's 15-minute meeting between the veteran jurist and the college kid with the broad grin and braces who's fascinated by the law and who longs to be a district attorney and then a judge.

"She was so nice and so sweet," Dukes said of Sotomayor. "She just started asking me about my siblings, my family, what school I go to and about my life. And then she just said, 'I'm so proud of you.' "

She's not the only one.

"I am one proud dad," said Douglas Dukes, 48, who drives trains for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. "She had the gumption to say, 'I'm going to write her a letter.' "

Douglas Dukes inspired his daughter to go to Daemen after hearing of the school from friends and figuring that a small upstate Catholic college would be the best place for a quiet, thoughtful girl from the Bronx.

Dukes said she loves Daemen, where she will be a junior in the fall, and she proved it during her meeting with Sotomayor.

"She loved the Daemen College Wildcats mug that I bought from my school for her," Dukes said. "She took it out of the bag and said, 'I go to the cafeteria. I'm gonna use this!' "

That's by no means all Sotomayor had to say. She told Dukes to start getting ready now for law school, to start checking out schools and preparing for the entrance exam.

And she gave Dukes some more day-to-day advice, too, one city girl to another.

"She said, 'Don't have negative people around you because they'll just pull you down. You need people who, when you are down, they'll pull you up and snap you out of it,' " Dukes said.

The meeting ended with a hug, and with Sotomayor asking Dukes to keep her posted on how she's doing.

And with that, an aide took Dukes on a tour of the Supreme Court, a marble-pillared landmark across the street from the Capitol.

Entering the courtroom, Dukes looked behind the bench and saw nine tall empty chairs.

At that moment, she said, she thought to herself, "I can see myself in one of those chairs someday."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com.