Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor emphasizes importance of broad education, empathy in her talk at Stanford

Sonia Sotomayor, who became a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 2009, spoke about the importance of broad education and charity at Stanford Memorial Auditorium.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor encouraged students to be charitable, curious and willing to learn, as she spoke at Stanford on Friday, March 10.

“I think that’s the only way I know how to live life in a meaningful way,” said Sotomayor, speaking at a packed Memorial Auditorium, which seats more than 1,700. “To become who you are and to do the work you want to do is to be open to want to learn and give at the same time.”

Sotomayor discussed the importance of education and her journey to the Supreme Court while speaking with M. Elizabeth Magill, dean of Stanford Law School, and answering questions from students in the audience. The event, which Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne opened, was presented by the Office of the President, Stanford Law School and the senior class presidents for the Class of 2017.

Sotomayor’s hunger for education began in the fourth grade with her love of books. She read to escape the sadness that overtook her family after her father’s death.

“Books gave me a rocket ship not only around the world, but through the universe,” said Sotomayor, who wrote a book about her life experiences called My Beloved World. “In that experience of reading, I understood the power of education. Because it took you not just to places you might never experience, but to thoughts that you might never otherwise have entertained.”

Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and earned her law degree at Yale University before becoming the first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic heritage in 2009. When she began college, Sotomayor said she took a broad range of introductory courses, from psychology and economics to philosophy and religious studies, before narrowing her interests to Latin American history.

Sotomayor encouraged today’s students to do the same.

“I figured out first how to be a generally informed citizen before I tried to be a specialist in anything else,” said Sotomayor, seated across from Magill on the auditorium’s stage. “And that’s the advice I would give all of you who are experiencing college. Take courses in areas that don’t particularly interest you, but might make you a more knowledgeable person. … Curious people go further.”

Asked about the current political divide in the U.S., Sotomayor said it’s important to respect and understand people’s motivations and where they are coming from.

“If it is a person of good will talking to you, there is something in what they’re saying to you about their views, their needs, what’s worrisome to them that has justification,” Sotomayor said.

After about a 30-minute discussion with Magill, Sotomayor stepped down from the stage and answered several pre-selected questions from students. As she talked, she walked through the aisles of the auditorium signing autographs and shaking hands with students, faculty and staff.

Sotomayor spoke about her experiences with discrimination, treasuring one’s heritage and how she makes a conscious effort to learn and improve every day as a person and as a Supreme Court justice. In an answer to one student’s question about her first days on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor said she feared that she was not going to be good enough.

“If you’re having a new experience and you’re not a little scared, you’re conceited,” Sotomayor said. “It’s not a perfect process, learning. … The lesson that I have tried to learn in life, and I haven’t actually gotten there, is that there is no one definition of success.”

Because of time constraints, not every student’s question was asked, but several students got a chance to meet Sotomayor earlier in the day before the event.

“She is the intersection of brilliance and fairness,” said José Martinez, a third-year student at Stanford Law School, describing Sotomayor as his “hero.” “As a Latino, it’s really powerful for me to see someone like Justice Sotomayor hold a seat at the highest court and do such important work.”

At the end of the event, which ran about 20 minutes over as Sotomayor insisted on answering as many students’ questions as possible, Magill presented Sotomayor a red “Fear the Nerds” T-shirt with #NerdUp printed on the back.

Sotomayor held up the T-shirt and smiled widely.

“I grew up being a nerd,” she said. “Take pride in being nerds.”