Remarks by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor
Hostos Community College 39th Commencement Ceremony
Bronx, New York
June 4, 2010
It is so hard to find words to describe how my family and I feel to be here with you today.
As you all know, our family is a lot like your family. We come from the same background, we have lived many of the same struggles and we have faced many of the same challenges that you have faced. We also know well the powerful promise of growth and advancement that motivated each of you graduates at every step along your path towards this moment. From these experiences we have shared a sense of pride and hard work and a common belief in education as a means of self and community improvement. We celebrate with you today, with a full understanding of what you have achieved, and we are filled with joy in your success.
My parents came to New York from Puerto Rico during World War II. Before arriving in New York my mom joined the Women’s Army Corps, the first class of women to enlist after the Corps began accepting women from Puerto Rico. When her service in the Army ended, my mom attended and graduated from James Monroe High School. I bet there might be one or two alumni from that high school that has since long closed.
In 1963, when I was 9 years old and my brother was 6, my mom thought about going back to school to get her registered nursing degree. She realized that if she wanted to improve the quality of her family’s life, she had to go to college. As she looked at the requirements for college admission however, my mom despaired that no college would accept her or give her the support she needed to succeed. As an older student with two children, and as someone who needed help with her formal English writing skills, my Mom did not have many options. These and other obstacles forced my mom to put her college plans on hold. But her dream of college never wavered.
In 1970 Hostos Community College opened, and this opening, opened the door to my Mother’s dreams. It opened the path to where I am today. Finally there was an institution that offered the right mix of educational and support services to give my mom a chance to attain her aspirations of becoming a nurse. My mom was 47 years old when she went back to school. She started taking classes at Hostos during my senior year of high school and my brother’s first year of high school. Even with the unusual amount of support she found at Hostos, it was not always easy for her. She worked while she went to school; she borrowed money to pay for her education. It wasn’t that long ago when mom called me and said “I finally paid off that last loan”. She worked so hard to feed and clothe us. She stayed up late countless nights, deciphering foreign words and ideas and honing her writing and analytical skills. My mom’s remarkable commitment, together with the amazing resources of Hostos, made her efforts a success. At Hostos she found professors who understood her struggles and who worked with her to achieve her goals. She met friends and future colleagues with whom she could share her anxieties and ambitions. As you’re sitting out there today, look to the left, look to the right, look in front of you and behind you. These are the people who went through it with you and who are going to be there for all the years after this. Thank them.
The uniquely supportive environment of Hostos gave my mom the chance to achieve her dreams of being a college graduate and a registered nurse, and it gave me and my brother a powerful example of the value of education and of family. My family is a testament to the contributions that community colleges make to our society. As the President of Hostos has described, this place is a gateway to educational advancement and professional growth. My family and I are overjoyed by what you have achieved. You have taken charge of your futures and in doing so you have improved not just yourselves but also the lives of your family members. All of you who have come from a foreign land in this audience, all of who are the first college graduates in your families, all of you who have struggled so hard to get where you are, you are living proof, like my brother and I, that we can make it, and we can.
You will breathe life into the dreams of the next generation. You’re the generation that followed me and your children will follow us. Together we’re going to make this a better world. As you travel along your professional path, the way may not always be easy, today’s economy presents a unique set of challenges and at times in your career, you will undoubtedly feel disheartened. When you do, recall the joy and pride you feel today and remember how well you deserved that feeling today.
Let you memory of this achievement, propel you towards the next. As long as you remember that you can, you will do it.
This has been a very special year for me, filled with countless magical moments. I never in my wildest imaginations thought that this would be my life. When I dreamt as a child of being a lawyer and a judge, I had no idea that a Supreme Court existed. Now I am humbled to have the privilege of working every day, to wrestle with some of the most challenging and important legal questions of our times. It is a wonderful thing to be passionate about your work. As an added benefit, I have recently had the opportunity to meet the President and the First Lady, I threw out the first pitch at a Yankee Game—and I got to see the Yankees beat the Red Sox.
Each day when I walk into my courtroom my back tingles with the blessings I have been given. Tonight is another magical moment for me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to return to my home, The Bronx, and to celebrate in this place with all of you.
I congratulate you on your vision. I extend my gratitude to the professors, family and friends who supported you along the way and I wish all of you a lifetime of future successes and remembered joy, knowing that you have earned each achievement through hard work, dedication, and fortitude. The strength of spirit that brought you here today will undoubtedly guide you throughout the rest of your lives. Thank you for letting me be a part of today.