Supreme court justice Sonia Sotomayor high fives UTSA president Taylor Eighmy. Gaige Davila/The Paisano

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s inspirational account of her life elicited applause throughout her presentation to the UTSA community, but when President Taylor Eighmy said, “She is the first Latina to sit on the high bench,” the audience began cheering.

“That gives me goosebumps, and I’m already noticing that some of you have tears,” Eighmy said to the standing room only audience.

Sotomayor was familiar with San Antonio warm welcomes. She recounted a moment during the launch of her book “My Beloved” when she knew she had to visit the city.

“When I was in Austin, busloads of people came to see me from San Antonio. I was so deeply touched that people did that, I made a promise,” Sotomayor said. “I told them the next time I came to Texas, San Antonio would be my first stop.”

Sotomayor accepted UTSA’s longstanding invitation to visit the campus. Her request to visit was described by Eighmy as, “the easiest question I’ve ever got in my life.”

Sotomayor addressed the roughly 500 UTSA students, faculty, staff and community leaders who packed the Retama Auditorium Thursday. She walked the aisles as she answered questions, patting shoulders and shaking the hands of audience members. Before she began her presentation, she visited with another 500 persons in the overflow room.

Sotomayor exemplified what UTSA advocates and supports: a first-generation Hispanic graduate who reached success through perseverance.

“It’s okay to say you’re not as smart as someone else. It’s not okay to say you don’t work as hard as someone else,” Sotomayor said. “Perseverance can overcome a lot of things.

“I lived my life goal to goal. I started with ‘I’m going to be a lawyer,’ and ‘someday, I’m going to be a judge,’” Sotomayor said. “The first thing I had to do was go to college, and I had to finish college because no one in my family had ever finished college.”

Sotomayor credited her desire for higher education to her mother, whose determination to get an education began when she was young girl in Puerto Rico and observed students leaving the college that was near her home. Her mother later joined the military and moved to the U.S. The dream followed her.

Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1976 and earned her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979, where she was an editor at the Yale Law Journal. She described her approach to school candidly.

“I studied as hard as I could,” Sotomayor said. “I went to get help in studying because I didn’t write English well. I had a professor who helped me learn how to write English well and I did all that I needed to do to become a top student.”

Among the audience members were UTSA professors whose message to their students does not veer far from Sotomayor’s.

“I think it’s great to have a person who has a similar Hispanic background that inspires students to achieve their goals by showing them you don’t necessarily need to know where you’ll be at the end,” politics and law professor Javier Oliva said. “If you go one step at a time with your preliminary goals, you will be accomplished.”

Nine students were selected to ask Sotomayor a question. For some, it was personal. Terralyn Wilburn commented on a challenge she and Sotomayor shared.

“I have prediabetes, so I was interested in how (Sotomayor) lives with hers and maintains it,” Wilburn said.

Sotomayor addressed a range of personal issues such as her father’s battle with alcoholism, her own womanhood and her Latina background.

State Representative Diego Bernal was impressed with Sotomayor’s connection with the audience.

“I’m here as an admirer,” Bernal said. “You rarely get opportunities like this. I was just surprised to see her. She was so accessible and down to earth.

“When the president was just talking about her before she came out, the response of the students and the crowd was the appropriate measure; that was the right metric. It obviously meant so much to the students here.”

After Sotomayor’s speech, Eighmy presented her with a UTSA first-generation-college T-shirt, which Sotomayor said she’d wear with pride.

Sotomayor reminded students they are at the university to learn. She asks herself each day two questions: What did I learn? Did I do something nice for someone?

“I really do believe that the only way to grow is to learn and to use that learning in some way to make a contribution, and where that takes you is a lot farther than where you started,” Sotomayor said.

 

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