CKF: What are you studying, and what drew you to that major?
FIGUEROA: I competed in debate in high school. I was drawn to the law and loved arguing both sides of an issue, but I actually entered Notre Dame as a finance major. As the first in my family to go to college, I thought I should pursue something that would give me the highest return on my degree. I wanted to give back to my family, so I was determined to go into banking. I quickly found out I was not passionate about my classes in the business school. It was a troubling moment. Despair is too strong of a word, but I didn’t know what to do with my life anymore. I did know I loved debate, dissecting arguments, and public speaking, so I changed to political science. I’m minoring in constitutional studies as well.
CKF: How did you hear about the Menard Tocqueville Fellows Program? How has it deepened your learning?
FIGUEROA: Luckily, I’d taken one political science class fall of my freshman year. When I told that professor I was leaving the business school, he said I should take a class with Professor Vincent Muñoz. I did — constitutional law — and fell in love with it. Professor Muñoz asked me to apply to the fellowship. What is particularly special about the program are the colloquiums. You need a very particular kind of student to do the extra reading for a discussion that’s on a weekend and is not for credit or a stipend. We’re in this program because we genuinely want to engage with ideas and learn. The fellows come from all sorts of backgrounds and ideologies — and we’re not all majoring in the same discipline either. I get to hear arguments from so many different perspectives, angles I never would have thought about.
CKF: We hear stories from other campuses about students trying to ban or shout down speakers. You’ve got something else going on. Tell me more about the sort of openness that fuels the Tocqueville fellows.
FIGUEROA: My first colloquium was, “Is Capitalism Moral?” I went to it even before I was a fellow. I walked into a room full of strangers and found fellows who were moderate, conservative, left-leaning — and some who were still trying to figure out where they fell. That discussion showed me the program has a higher mission. On many college campuses, people start out as friends, and then they become estranged when they find out they have ideological differences. They can’t engage. I started out that colloquium in a room full of people I didn’t know but left with new friends. Our friendships are deepened by the fact we can engage in heated debates.
CKF: When it comes to sustaining a functioning society, why are programs like the Menard Tocqueville Fellows Program important?
FIGUEROA: Right now, it seems like we cannot even agree on our common humanity. As fellows, we recognize we have that — and at least one other thing in common: a desire to learn, seek truth, and be better citizens. From there, we can debate to solve tough problems. It’s not uncommon for us to leave a colloquium and continue the discussion because we really want to understand another person’s perspective. There is one beautiful memory I have. We went back to my residence hall around 9 p.m. to talk about religion in U.S. politics — a difficult topic — and the only reason we stopped talking was because we heard birds chirping outside. It’s such a privilege to have moments like that.
CKF: And how will this level of openness help you in your own life?
FIGUEROA: The program is meant to ground you in principles so that in your career and life, you have an idea of how to act. The program achieves this mission by giving you a chance to explore topics you might not explore in the classroom. Sometimes college can seem systematic. A checklist of things you’re supposed to do to graduate. That makes students hesitant to explore. Having these conversations, especially when they’re interdisciplinary, is important so you can tackle dilemmas in any field you go into. Take technology policy. I remember having a free speech discussion, and someone said it would be great if Mark Zuckerberg had taken a class on the constitutional importance and history of free speech. Maybe if he had, he would better understand the implications of content moderation.
CKF: As a budding political scientist, brag about some of the luminaries you’ve been able to engage with as part of the program. What did their words mean to you?
FIGUEROA: Congresswoman Liz Cheney addressed us after the 2022 primaries. She talked about the importance of speaking up for what you believe even if it costs you — and she’s familiar with the consequences of standing her ground. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas also addressed our group. We both come from humble backgrounds. His resilience in the face of adversity and political attacks is remarkable and inspiring. My parents have been incredibly encouraging, too, though they were a little skeptical when I changed from finance to political science!
CKF: Practically, how has your involvement in the Menard Tocqueville Fellows Program helped your passion for the law?
FIGUEROA: Professor Muñoz gave me some great advice when I began looking for internships. He told me not to wait for a position to be created — to call up organizations I wanted to work for and offer to help. Last summer, I cold-called the Missouri Public Defender’s Office and ended up interning for them at the appellate level. Most of their work was post-conviction relief. Work I did directly impacted peoples’ lives. Right now, I’m interning at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. I cold-called them, too, because they usually don’t take spring interns. I’ve been doing research, ghost-writing op-eds, and right now, we’re about to file a brief in a case. If it hadn’t been for Professor Muñoz, I would have only looked at advertised internships.