Justice Sotomayor speaks to students about engagement

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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a Queens College audience she believes colleges and universities are doing a lousy job of inspiring civic engagement and civic values in their students.

The remark, which elicited uproarious laughter from the audience,  came in response to a question from  President Felix V. Matos during a Q & A session on Oct. 16 in the Lefrak Concert Hall. Justice Sotomayor said civic engagement is crucial because of how it affects our daily lives and foreshadows our futures, and urged students to be more aware of the system that affects their daily lives.

“The worst thing you can do is let life happen to you, and that’s what you do when you are not civically involved” the justice said. “ You let things happen instead of being someone who makes things happen.”

Born and raised in the Bronx, Sotomayor became the first Latina Supreme Court Justice after  being nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009.

She wished Queens College a happy 80th anniversary and answered questions from President Matos ranging from her journey to the Supreme Court, to the advice she’d give to incoming freshmen, to what career she would have chosen in another life.  

Before answering questions from QC students, however, Sotomayor stood up and started walking  around the music hall auditorium,  catching the attention of the Secret Service agents who were stationed around the room. As a young child, Sotomayor explained, her mother had nicknamed her “aji” for “ hot peppers,” because of her inability to sit still, and it remains a habit to this day.  

Asked how she separates herself and her experiences from the cases she hears every day, Sotomayor said she doesn’t.  “We’re people first and foremost. The sense of how you deal with it, at least for me, is to acknowledge it. So many people will put on a face or armor and say somehow it doesn’t affect me. I don’t do that. I expect for it to be felt. I look at it, exactly trying to figure out the effect of this happening and then try to adjust my behavior in the court.”

Sotomayor surprised the audience by posing for photographs with QC students and staff members in the middle of the auditorium. After a student asked for her advice for young minority women who aspire to be leaders, Sotomayor hesitated, then said that her advice was not limited to young women but applied to young men as well.

“Have the courage to stand out,” she said. “And if you can do that, there’s no stopping the force of what you will become. You just need the courage to try.”

Asked what motivated her to write her memoir, “My Beloved World,” which came out in 2013, the justice, still pacing the aisles, said  it was a way to ensure that one of her biggest fears did not come true, which was losing herself in her new role. She said the book was a way to remind herself  how she arrived at the highest court in the land and how her growing up in New York molded her into the person she is now.

Khiabet Leal, a sophomore majoring in early childhood education, said she agreed with Justice Sotomayor’s advice to young aspiring minority leaders. “Justice Sotomayor is an example that we can do anything we aim for, with the right perseverance and determination……She is someone who broke past the limits that were set in the past by society, and that motivates me to do the same.”

Ashely Chavez, a junior majoring in communication sciences and disorders, said she reserved a ticket for the event as soon as she received the invitation.  “As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a great opportunity and that I had to be there,” Chavez said.

“When I see her, I see myself, because we both came from the same background. Seeing her get so far, becoming the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, it makes me believe that I can get far too.”

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