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At Amherst College, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor encourages students to listen, work hard and be passionate



AMHERST — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Amherst College students Tuesday she felt like “an alien in a strange land” when she was in college.

She attended Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude in 1976, and earned her law degree from Yale Law School in 1979. But, before she earned her degrees, she said, she felt stupid at school, where she was the first generation in her family to go to college.

“You feel stupid, but you’re not stupid — you’re ignorant,” she said to 600 people in Johnson Chapel and many more in an overflow crowd watching live in Stirn Auditorium. “There’s a really big difference. Stupid means some sort of intellectual deficit. Ignorance means there is information you don’t have.”

Sotomayor spoke for an hour and a half Tuesday evening, primarily answering students’ questions. But before she took questions, she spoke about herself and her ascension to the Supreme Court.

“When I became a justice, I was catapulted from a life I loved,” she said. “I was a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. I thought that was where I was going to end up. I was perfectly happy there. I loved my job, I loved the city. I lived in New York.”

When her name was floated in the press as a possible associate justice on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor took out a yellow pad of paper and wrote down pros and cons. There were more cons than pros, she said, but she knew in the end she would say yes.

She said she fell back on advice given to her by a colleague, Constance Baker Motley, an African-American lawyer and judge who argued and won many cases in front of the Supreme Court.

“When a colleague was reticent about taking a promotion, she said to me, ‘You can’t do that. When you have a chance to open the door for others, you don’t have a right to say no,’ ” Sotomayor told the students. Rather than applauding, many of them snapped in approval.

That is why she said yes to President Obama in 2009 when she was called to serve on the Supreme Court, she said.

Debt challenge

Students formed a line to ask a question, and Sotomayor walked around the room as she answered, though she always returned to the front to pose for a picture with each student. “I’m going to take a picture with every student who is brave enough to come up and ask a question,” she said.

One of the first students asked what challenges college students face today compared to when she was in school.

Though Sotomayor described herself as optimistic, she said the bad news is that the current generation of college students has it much tougher than her generation did.

“Here,” she said, referring to Amherst College, “the cost of your education has been underwritten substantially by the university, but student debt for the country is so large. I went through four years of college and three years of law school and had $15,000 in debt. No one can say that today, and that will be our greatest challenge as a nation.”

She said it was important to strive for equality as a nation and make higher education affordable.

Sotomayor added that finding a job was also easier for people of her generation, and that struggling to find work might lead to disillusionment.

Lastly, she said that the loss of faith in government by a large portion of the country was a further challenge ahead for the current generation of college students.

“We got the Civil Rights Act, the national Voting Rights Act, and people believed in the government and in the law, and the loss of faith in them is a critical problem for your generation,” she said. “If you don’t have faith in your system of government, then we stop being a community. Once we stop that, it is going to be that much harder for us to make improvements in the quality of all of our lives.”

She told her audience they should vote, and also be passionate about something.

“I don’t care what kind of thing you become passionate about, except legalizing marijuana,” she said.

Ask, listen

Sotomayor’s answers to many questions involved both listening to others and looking for other perspectives.

Discussing research for her 2013 book, “My Beloved World,” she said she interviewed family members about her parents and learned that they had had a genuine romance. Sotomayor recalled seeing mostly her father’s alcoholism.

“If you have parents or grandparents that are still alive, talk to them, find out their story and ask them personal questions,” she said. “You might be surprised by the answer.”

Saying he was unhappy that international students were not included in a smaller dinner group meeting Sotomayor had before the event in Johnson Chapel, an international student asked how best to make productive use of anger.

Sotomayor said anger in some situations is inappropriate and can make a person look small, but that there are other times when properly channeled anger can lead to important change.

“There are situations where people don’t listen,” she said, and then spoke about civil rights protests that took place when she was a student. “I’m not by nature a protester; I try to reconcile situations, but thank God for those students who were angry.”

College spokeswoman Caroline Hanna said later that the dinner meeting of 25 to 30 students, which Sotomayor requested herself, did include a member of the International Student Association.

Sotomayor is the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court. One student asked what her experience was like “in a man’s world.”

She said some in her college days would see she was the only woman in a class of men. When she received honors in a class, a friend told her it was because she was the only woman in the class.

Sotomayor said she responded that she received the honor because she was the only one who read the textbook in the class.

She said women’s ideas are often overlooked and then repeated by men, who take credit for them themselves. Sotomayor said she is assertive about taking credit for her own ideas.

At the same time, she said it is important to look beyond her own gender and race. “If you spend too much time focusing in on that, you don’t focus on getting the job done,” she said. “I try to get my job done regardless of what others are thinking or feeling.”

People have expectations of women that are either too high or too low, but the important thing is for people to set their own expectations, and do their best to meet those.

Amherst sophomore Jalalludeen “J.D.” Abdullah, 19, of Washington, D.C., said he came to see Sotomayor speak because she represents a voice of Hispanic people and women on the national stage.

He said he was impressed by her demeanor with the audience.

“She was encouraging people to talk, agreeing to take a picture with them, and was patient with people’s questions,” he said. He added that she was open about her life, including some of her family’s personal history, like her father’s alcoholism.

That openness is a quality that is desirable in a Supreme Court justice, he said.

First-year student Veronica Rocco, 17, of Tenafly, New Jersey, said the message that resonated most with her was Sotomayor’s call to work hard and not to give up.

“This was a great way to finish the first day of college classes,” she said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.