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Sonia from the Bronx

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    Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, right, and UM President Donna E. Shalala on stage at the BankUnited Center on Friday.

    Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, right, and UM President Donna E. Shalala on stage at BankUnited Center on Friday.

    It was the first time Sonia Sotomayor had ever received a grade of C on a written paper. Having great insights into what she read had always helped the then-first-year Princeton student to get good grades. The C grade shocked Sotomayor.

    Her professor explained that while the paper was filled with excellent ideas, it lacked a theme and wasn’t written in complete sentences. So that summer Sotomayor, who’d grown up in a Spanish-speaking household, went to a bookstore and bought grammar and vocabulary books, sharpening her written English skills and devoting herself to learning five new words a day. She also enlisted the help of a professor to hone her English, paper by paper.

    Her prose eventually improved so dramatically that an instructor rated her senior thesis the best-written of the academic term.

    “The greatest thing you can do is to look for people who can help you,” Sotomayor, now an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, told an audience of thousands, many of them students, on Friday inside the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center. Pride and arrogance, she said, are character traits that do more harm than good. “You’re not born anything. Practice makes perfect.”

    Her remarks, delivered during a nearly hour-long sit-down chat with UM President Donna E. Shalala, provided a closer look at Sotomayor’s life story, laid out in vivid detail in the associate justice’s new book, My Beloved World.

    Sotomayor walked among students during the Q&A portion of the program, touching their shoulders and shaking their hands.

    Sotomayor walked among students during the Q&A portion of the program, touching their shoulders and shaking their hands.

    The first Hispanic and only the third woman appointed to the high court, Sotomayor published her memoir simultaneously in Spanish and English, a decision that was important to her. “I could not write a book and not have it translated at the same time into the first language I spoke,” Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, explained. “Neither my grandmother, nor my father, or most of my aunts and uncles still today speak or write English. I wanted them to [be able] to read the book.”

    Shalala asked Sotomayor if she is troubled by fewer and fewer of today’s generation visiting libraries and buying books, to which the associate justice expressed concern.

    “There is a beauty to words that visual scenes can’t create,” Sotomayor said. “I think most people, and especially the younger generation…forget to let the creativity of their minds be provoked by words…That’s what books did for me when I found them.”

    With the mothers of both Sotomayor and Shalala sitting together in the front row of the arena, Sotomayor told students to learn their families’ history from a living parent or grandparent before it’s too late. She noted that it took her more than 50 years after her father’s death to sit down with her mother, Celina, “to ask the ‘why’ of her life.” In doing so, Sotomayor learned details of her mother’s past she never knew about, like the romance between her parents.

    Sotomayor answers questions from UM student media prior to her talk.

    Sotomayor answers questions from UM student media prior to her talk.

    “Sonia from the Bronx,” as she once said she prefers to be called, also talked about her diabetes and what living with the chronic disease has given her—“the gift of learning how to have discipline enough to take care of yourself.”

    She spoke of what it is like to serve on the nation’s highest court, explaining that every case on which it rules affects a multitude of people. “That kind of responsibility makes the job really hard,” she said.

    President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor as an associate justice on May 26, 2009, and in less than three months she assumed her role on the court.

    During her conversation with Shalala, presented in association with Books and Books, Sotomayor described as “breathtaking” the way in which the world follows the activities of the Supreme Court. “The world listens, asks questions, and wants to know about us,” she said. But she has never allowed such scrutiny to go to her head, she added, always remembering where she came from. Sotomayor grew up poor in a Bronx housing project.

    She directed advice to the law students in the audience, telling them that being a lawyer is the “noblest profession you can enter. The greatest value of what you do is help people with their problems.”

    During the Q&A portion of the program, Sotomayor got up from her chair, left the BankUnited Center stage, and walked among students seated in chairs, touching their shoulders and shaking as many hands as she could—all the while answering questions that had been submitted previously by UM students.

    “There is no one path to being a justice,” Sotomayor responded to a question on how to be appointed to the Supreme Court. But one characteristic many justices have in common is their service in the community. “Find your life’s passion so that you’re doing things people will notice,” she said.

    She also warned students that fear is the greatest obstacle to success. Fear of failing is what “stops most people from trying new things,” she said. “It hurts, but you lick your wounds and get up and try again.”

    Judge’s Sidebar
    Just prior to her sit-down talk with President Shalala, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor addressed student reporters in a media room at BankUnited Center, answering questions on a variety of topics.

    The high dropout rate among Hispanics and other minority students is one of Sotomayor’s biggest concerns and is the primary reason she spends so much time speaking with kids on the issue, she told student reporters.

    On the rising cost of law school, she said schools of law “need to start thinking about ways to contain costs,” noting that changing the delivery of their studies is one way it might be done.

    But, despite the “staggering” debt associated with college, she cautioned students not to forgo a good education.

    Sotomayor also told the student journalists that she elected to go into law because it is a profession that serves.

    “Someday I will render a decision you won’t like,” she said. “If I don’t, I’m doing something wrong.”

    Text: By Robert C. Jones Jr.
    Photos: By Andrew Innerarity


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