Sonia Sotomayor

Commencement Address at Manhattan College - May 17, 2019

Sonia Sotomayor
May 17, 2019— Manhattan College, the Bronx, New York City
Print friendly
Video

Hello. I am thrilled to be a new Jasper.

President O'Donnell, I thank you and the Board of Trustees of this college for bestowing upon me my honorary degree. I take great pride in joining the great class of 2019.

It is an honor for me to share this occasion with all of you. It is also particularly lovely for me to be here because it lets me return to my home borough, the Bronx, a place that makes my heart smile whenever I come back to it. You can send the girl to Washington, DC, but you can't take the Bronx out of her. Just notice how I've been saying the Bronx the right way.

President O'Donnell, you began your tenure at Manhattan College in July of 2009. I became a justice a month later in August 2009. We are both celebrating our tenth year anniversary and I congratulate you on your tenure thus far.

As a baseball fan, I am thrilled to be here at the birthplace of the seventh-inning stretch, a tradition dating back to a game in the night in the 1880s between your Jaspers and what is today New York City's second-best baseball team, the Mets. Guess what team I favor?

Hopefully, Mr. President, we are both still in the early innings of our respective outings. You deserve to take particular pride in this college because it epitomizes the values I grew up with here in the Bronx – commitment to education and community.

The five Christian brothers who founded this institution back in 1853, following in the footsteps of the great educational pioneer Saint John Baptist de La Salle, understood that education has the power to change lives. And I do not just mean, as I will explain today, to change the financial conditions of people's lives. I mean also the power of education to touch minds and hearts, to help students live lives of meaning and purpose.

As some of you already know, I grew up in a poor area of the Bronx, in a housing project in the southeastern part of that borough. Some of you may share similar backgrounds. I know our valedictorian does.

My dad was a factory worker who had graduated only from sixth grade and my mom at the time was a practical nurse who had gotten her high school diploma as part of her veterans educational grant after she left the army.

My parents had not had many educational opportunities themselves growing up, but they and especially my mom made education the center value of the lives of my brother and me, who my mom raised alone after my dad died when I was nine. She repeatedly – Donya [Quhshi], just like your mother – told us that education would open the door of opportunity. Eventually when my brother and I were in high school, my mother was able to achieve her own lifelong dream of going to college and becoming a registered nurse.

For all the parents and even grandparents out there, it is never too late to go back to school.

It was impossible for my brother and me not to study hard when we watched how hard Mom studied night after night at our kitchen table. My mother made clear both in words and deeds that a good education was the key to success in life.

As is so often the case, I learned, I have learned my mother was right, so much so that the front cover of a children's book I published this year called "Turning Pages" has an illustration of me walking up the steps of the Supreme Court holding a key. That key, I tell people of all ages, represents what opened the whole world to me – reading and education.

It is what has opened the world for you and like all good things it did not come easily. You have put in years of very hard work to get your degree today. You and likely your families have sacrificed time and money to make it possible. Through triumphs and trials, sweat and fatigue you have arrived at this moment.

While I hope you will congratulate yourselves on this achievement, I hope that you also take time to thank those who helped you along the way. Working together with others, you may have already discovered, is one of the great secrets to achieving anything in the world. I first realized that during my own time in college, which as you heard, felt a little bit like arriving in an alien country.

My very first semester I was assigned to write a midterm paper in the introductory American history course I was taking. When I got my paper back I saw a big red C+ marked at the top. That was the lowest grade I had received on anything since the fourth grade. I was devastated. I went to my history professor and asked why I had received such a low grade. Her feedback that both my structure and my grammar needed work could have been disabling. Instead, however, I learned from it and I asked for help. Before the next essay, in addition to spending countless hours poring over basic grammar books, I sought out the assistance of my professors. By the time I graduated – and as you know, summa laude – I had come to see that dreams come true only if you work hard to make them come true and they come true not just because of your own efforts but also because other people in your life help you succeed.

So thanks to a lot of hard work and help from others, you have made it here today. And as you sit here about to receive your diplomas, I imagine you are both excited and a bit nervous – excited rightly about what you have accomplished, yet you may also be a little nervous about what this education has brought you.

Many academics and journalists are writing these days about the value of a college education in terms of credentialing and income, particularly in the face of rising costs. Amid these conversations, it can be all too easy to ask whether pursuing a college education is worth it. The answer is yes. Most studies and commentators say a college degree remains very important. Economic data shows that in the long run a college degree means more long-term earnings, particularly in comparison to a high school degree, the value which has decreased over the years. So even though you may have a job or are looking for one and your pay may not be what you had imagined, you should be less nervous about the worth of your degree from a dollar-and-cents perspective. It will pay off.

But what all of this economic data misses is that education has a more important value than money. It is deeply important to our growth as people and as a community.

I am often asked if I ever imagined as a child being on the Supreme Court, the highest court of the United States. No, I say. When I was a child, my family was poor. No lawyer or judges lived in my neighborhood. I knew nothing about the Supreme Court or how its work in interpreting the Constitution and the laws of the United States affects people's lives.

You cannot dream of becoming something you do not know about. You have to learn to dream big. Education exposes you to what the world has to offer, to the possibilities open to you. It teaches you how to navigate your profession and your life in general. For me, education opened my eyes to what I could become.

Education enriches you as a person. I often ask kids to identify the most interesting person they have met. Inevitably, they identify a person who speaks about his or her work with knowledge, who inspires others to consider a new idea or perspective, or who simply amuses people with a play on words or an insightful poke of fun on a human condition.

Education expands your knowledge and your ability to relate with and in the world.

Education helps you to think critically, to argue persuasively and to think about things from many different perspectives. These abilities in turn also help you navigate the difficulties that life presents, to map problems on to a broader understanding of how things work.

It's a paraphrase of prayer of the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: You learn ways of managing the things that cannot be changed, changing the things that should be changed and wisdom to tell the difference. Those skills are the real value of education, and what has made it worthwhile for you.

For each of you, different courses and topics you studied here will help you navigate your lives in different ways. Whichever way these are for you, I know that they have and will help you on your journey, because education empowers you to grow beyond the limits you once knew and it takes you beyond the places and ways of thinking you already know and exposes you to the greater potential that exists in the world. My education taught me about the Supreme Court, a workplace beyond my wildest dreams as a child.

But the value of an education diminishes unless you put it to use, particularly good use. Good use includes earning a living and supporting your families. I suspect your parents are happy to hear that I'm telling you that. But it also seems you mean something much more significant. It means that your education here at Manhattan College has underscored. It means contributing to the betterment of the community and world you live in.

That betterment does not have to be in a big or public way like becoming a Supreme Court justice. My grandmother bettered her community by ensuring that no one around her ever went hungry. My mom as a practical nurse would give shots to neighbors who needed them or help others with blood pressure readings or changing of bandages. In fact, I remember calling my mother endlessly the morning that the Senate was voting on my nomination to the Second Circuit, the court I was on before the Supreme Court, only to be unable to reach her because she had instead taken a neighbor to a doctor's appointment.

Just as I am sure you have learned, my family taught me to measure happiness not by what I do as work but by what I give to others. It is the most important lesson and the deepest source of meaning I have found in life.

There are many ways in which you can use your education to foster that kind of meaning in your own lives – joining your school boards, becoming members of the board of trustees, for example, or assisting with food or clothing collections or tutoring in local schools.

Indeed, I suspect that your time in Manhattan College has exposed you to many possibilities, given the commitment of this college to service, including its Rikers Island jail project.

These are all examples of ways in which education can both broaden your perspectives and open up new sources of purpose and meaning. In the end, however you decide to be of service, it is the willingness to put your newly gained knowledge to use that will help you grow as an individual and also help us grow as a community and as a nation.

My decision to become a lawyer was itself an exercise in service. Working in the law is a career that I have always understood to be fundamentally about helping people. Lawyers both help individual clients and our society as a whole by ensuring that the rules we create to organize ourselves as a society are applied justly, neutrally and fairly. That is the kind of work I have always woken up to in the morning and I am excited to be able to do it.

But helping people is not a feature unique to lawyering. It should be, and is, a part of every job. If you do your job bearing that goal in mind, you will be happy and you will help people.

So as you go forth from this institution, ask yourself each day, Who have I helped today? How have I made a difference today? Who did you smile at? Who did you call to find out if they're feeling ok? What have you done?

If you can answer those questions each day, then you are living life at its most meaningful way. You have given and shared something of great value.

My hope for all of you here today is that you find a life filled with meaning and that you create that meaning by serving your communities and the people in your life.

Education, hard work and a sense of community are what made me who I am. They are the values of Manhattan College, whose ranks I am proud to join with the honorary degree you have given me today, and the values that will sustain your life in your future.

Class of 2019, I thank you for letting me share this day with you. Go off, dream big and accomplish much, but pause to have fun celebrating tonight and remember to thank all the people in the audience and beyond – your family, friends, professors and administrators, and all the others who are the unheralded of today. They have labored side by side with you, and I assure you they will labor with you each step of your way forward.

Please join me now not in applauding me, but in applauding yourself and all the people who have helped to your make your dreams of today come true.