Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States, is quick to say that she did not come from a life of privilege. She’s also the first to tell you that where your story begins doesn’t determine its end.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t even know what a judge was, and I certainly didn’t know there was a Supreme Court,” Sotomayor said. “Where I grew up, there weren’t any judges or lawyers. But it’s not about where you start. It’s not even about where you end up. For me, it’s about the process of growth.”
Growing up in the projects of the Bronx, Sotomayor was forced to contend with adult issues from a young age — her father was an alcoholic, she is a Type 1 diabetic and her grandmother was largely responsible for raising her. But with perseverance and determination, Sotomayor would go on to become the first Hispanic person to sit on the nation’s highest court.
Sotomayor looked back on her childhood and early career in her 2013 memoir My Beloved World, a New York Times Best Seller. And on Oct. 17, the justice turned Stony Brook’s Island Federal Arena into her personal classroom, sharing stories and insights with more than 3,000 members of the Class of 2022.
Every year, a committee of Stony Brook students, faculty and staff choose one book for new students to read, creating shared discussions and experiences for all majors as part of SBU’s First-Year Reading Program. In addition to providing a shared experience, the program promotes critical thinking as it seeks to engage students in discussions of social values and ethics. A highlight of the program is Commons Day, when the author of the selected book usually joins students for signings, lectures and conversation.
Sotomayor joined University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. for an hour of questions marked by her warmth, honesty and an earnestness to connect with students.
“As the first Latina justice, and only the third woman ever on the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor has a personal appreciation and understanding of the underrepresented in our society. She overcame great personal challenges and adversity to achieve distinction in her career,” President Stanley told the crowd. “I hope that Justice Sotomayor’s story has shown you that as long as you believe in yourself and work as hard as she did, there is no limit to what you can achieve.”
Before welcoming her to the stage, President Stanley declared Sotomayor an honorary member of the Class of 2022.
As President Stanley read the first submitted question from a student, Sotomayor scanned the packed arena in search of the inquirer, asking the crowd to help. Then, she took to the floor, preferring to walk among the students and stand at the foot of each section to greet students personally. While a day on the bench requires solemnity and stoicism, Sotomayor readily shared her vulnerabilities, struggles and triumphs with quiet confidence and a sense of humor.
“In 2009, when the newspapers were listing me as a potential pick for the Supreme Court, I immediately thought to myself, ‘This is a joke.’ I thought for sure it was going to be someone else,” Sotomayor told students. “When the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, ‘Please hold for the president of the United States,’ my heart was beating so loud that I was sure he could hear it. And then when he told me he had selected me to be his nominee, I did something no tough New Yorker likes to admit: I cried.”
Most of the students’ questions spoke to their own experiences as new college students: How did the justice adjust to her new role? How does she deal with criticism or difficult conversations? What advice would she give to a student unsure of their next steps?
She told students it took more than a year to “grapple with this new life on a worldwide theater,” affirming that it’s OK to feel confused, frustrated or uncertain about the future. Her advice about finding the right major: “Take courses in different areas of study. Do the required reading. And then if you find yourself doing the optional or suggested readings on top of that, if you find you can’t get enough, those areas may be your passions.”
Ultimately, Sotomayor stressed the importance of a good support system, conducting oneself gracefully, and never forgetting one’s roots. She wrote My Beloved World as a personal reminder to stay humble and commit to memory the lessons she learned in life thus far.
As a parting message, Sotomayor encouraged all freshmen over 18 to vote in the midterm elections on Nov. 6. “I don’t care who you vote for, but you must vote! I want you to be a part of this process, to be a voice for change.”
The students responded with a passionate cheer and standing ovation.
“As a Latina myself, it was so inspiring to see how anyone can accomplish anything they set their mind to,” said Marion deGruchy ‘22, a marine sciences major in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “I loved Justice Sotomayor’s motivation and how she was still determined to reach her goals even when the odds were stacked against her.”
— Melissa Arnold