U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to sit on the nation’s high court, wowed an overflow auditorium of UTSA students, alumni, and university and community leaders Thursday with an emotional and highly personal account of her rise as the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants in the Bronx to the Ivy League halls of Princeton and Yale.

University of Texas at San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy introduced Sotomayor and watched as the largely Hispanic audience cheered when he chronicled her career and eventual ascent to the Supreme Court. Sotomayor, meanwhile, peeked out from backstage as Eighmy opened an event that proved to be as much pep rally as inspirational experience.

Sotomayor briefly sat on stage with Eighmy, but quickly threaded her way into the audience and up the rows,  shaking as many hands as she could reach. Before the program began, she paid an unannounced visit to an overflow room to greet students there, too.

For many in the audience, Sotomayor illustrated their hopes and aspirations. As a Latina who was the first in her family to attend college, Sotomayor faced many of the obstacles some UTSA students encounter in their own lives.

“It was inspiring to see someone of such high caliber and in such high position,” said Alfonzo Mendoza, a junior political science major at UTSA.

In discussing her childhood, Sotomayor mentioned her father’s struggle with alcoholism. He died of a heart attack related to his drinking when she was 9.

“His face would get sort of paralyzed and droopy … and when I saw that, my heart would sink,” she said, adding, “I was not responsible. I wasn’t the cause.”

Yet, she said, she later used the situation to give her strength in making better choices for herself.

Sophomore Anissa Rodriguez said she personally identified with Sotomayor because of her own experience with an alcoholic family member. “It was inspiring to see [Sotomayor] overcome that.”

The justice addressed roughly 500 UTSA students, faculty, and staff who had waited since as early as 6 a.m. to hear her. Sotomayor said she came on her own initiative, accepting a longstanding invitation to visit from UTSA leaders.

“I called the university and said, ‘Will you have me now?’” said Sotomayor, to which UTSA President Taylor Eighmy responded with an immediate “Yes.”

Sotomayor, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 7½, said she decided to become a lawyer after finding out that her first choice, a position in law enforcement, might not be possible because of her medical condition.

Watching fictional television lawyer Perry Mason, she said, “I figured out at about 10 [years old] that lawyers could do investigations.” This, coupled with a love of reading Nancy Drew mysteries, piqued her interest in the law.

Growing up during the civil rights era, she observed Southern, mostly white male judges enforcing integration. This struck her as particularly courageous in the political and social climate in which the judges were living.

“These men had the courage to follow the law and do the right thing. … I wanted to be one of those people,” she said.

As a first-generation college graduate, Sotomayor and her experience resonated at UTSA, where nearly half of freshmen undergraduates enrolling there last fall were first-generation college students. After her speech, Eighmy presented her with a UTSA first-generation-college T-shirt, which Sotomayor said she planned to wear.

Sotomayor’s mother, Celina, was the force driving her daughter to become educated and supported the family after Sotomayor’s father died.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Sotomayor’s mother admired those around her receiving an education. Sotomayor said this led her mother to try to enlist in the U.S. Army. After meeting with Army officials, Celina discovered a snag — at 17, she was a year too young. A relative then sought the help of a local dignitary to help Sotomayor’s mother “magically [turn] 18.”

“My aunt did something in retrospect that was not proper. … I think we are past the statute of limitations,” Sotomayor said to laughter from the crowd. “Hence, I understand that people do the wrong thing for the right reasons.”

This experience, like many others in her life, has influenced Sotomayor’s approach to the law.

“Committing a crime is not always that you are a bad person, so that is a lesson that I have taken my entire life,” she said. “I don’t naysay that you have to pay the price for whatever act you do, but I also don’t judge people by one bad act or other bad acts.”

The third woman to sit on the Supreme Court issued advice to students who had similar goals. She said students must take advantage of the opportunity inherent in college: to learn.

When as a Princeton student Sotomayor found she didn’t understand the meaning of terms such as “a Freudian slip” or “Pavlovian theory,” she took an introductory psychology course. When she failed to grasp economic concepts, she took an intro economics course. This, she said, was key to her college experience.

“How do you know what you will be good at unless you take a risk here?” she said.

And while one student asked advice for how he, too, could end up on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor said to take it slow.

“I lived my life goal to goal,” she said, noting that she wasn’t always the smartest person in the room but gave herself no excuses for not being the hardest-working.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.