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Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced that she will run for president in 2020 on Dec. 31. She has faced repeated criticism from President Donald Trump, who has referred to her as "Pocahontas" on several occasions.

Credit: Lulu Wang

As United States Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) mounts her 2020 presidential campaign, allegations that she improperly claimed Native American ancestry combined with her reputation as a progressive firebrand continue to divide the electorate’s opinion of her.

Despite what critics call her "divisive" political reputation, interviews with Warren's former Penn Law School students paint a mostly positive picture of her tenure as a demanding but well-liked professor. Before Warren entered the political field, the Massachusetts senator taught contract and bankruptcy law at Penn Law from 1987 to 1995.

Shannon Sanfilippo, a 1993 Penn Law graduate, said Warren had a reputation as a tough but likable professor.

“I think she had all of our names memorized on the first day, so there was no place to hide,” Sanfilippo said. “You better know your reading [in her class]."

1990 Penn Law graduate Stephen Binhak also said the senator's course was demanding. “She was considered a very tough professor, but she was well-liked,” he added.

Several of Warren's former students also emphasized her intellect and expertise in the legal field.

An advertisement in the Daily Pennsylvanian from 27 April 1994 depicting Elizabeth Warren moderating a panel.

“She processes things very quickly, and she also understands arguments much more quickly than most,” 1992 Penn Law graduate Eric Marandett said.  

1993 Penn Law graduate Susan Marandett described Warren as "whip-smart."

Students said her teaching style was “Socratic” and said she was heavily focused on making sure students were engaged and actively involved in class.

“She would usually engage at least eight or 10 of us with questions any given class,” said Sanfilippo, who took Warren's first-year contract law class, which usually consisted of more than 100 students.

“If you didn’t have the answer quickly, she’d move on,” Susan Marandett said.

Although Warren now ranks among the nation’s most notable progressive politicians and was the first prominent Democrat to announce their 2020 presidential bid, her former students said her strong political presence is a stark contrast to Warren's former attitude in the classroom, where she remained unbiased and nonpartisan.

“You would never know what side she was on in any kind of given discussion. She was very fair,” Sanfilippo said. “You would never know her politics as a teacher.”

Susan Marandett (left) and Eric Marandett (right) were students of Elizabeth Warren when she taught at Penn Law. (Photo from Susan Marandett)

Binhak also said it "never occurred" to him that Warren would run for office and Susan Marandett said she "didn't sense any political aspirations" from Warren at the time.

Although Warren’s political leanings and ambitions were not apparent to her former law students, Binhak said he sees flashes of Warren’s teaching style now in her political career.

“A lot of her verbal talent now is exactly the way it was when she was a professor,” Binhak said. “She didn’t look a whole lot different as a senator than she did as a professor."

Others, such as Eric Marandett, are less certain of her electoral prospects.

“There’s going to be a lot of people in the Democratic primary,” he said. “Whether she gets through it, who knows?"

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