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The Tune You Create

Sonia Sotomayor

May 16, 2012 – NYU, New York City


This is awesome. 

There are graduates, families and friends here today from all 50 states and from around the world. I suspect that having this ceremony at Yankee Stadium may not be so meaningful for the many of you who are not from New York, or the few misguided of you, like David Brooks, who root for the Mets. 

But as you heard, I grew up in a public housing project in the Bronx, just a few miles away from the old Yankee Stadium, the house that Babe Ruth built. So for me, this event at the new stadium is momentous. 

Nothing in my childhood hinted to me that I would be in a position someday to stand on this field and speak to such a large crowd. As a child, I only saw the stadium on television when I watched baseball games next to my dad on the sofa. So it is not hard to understand how delighted I am to be here with you today.

In thinking about today, I have experienced many emotions but five captured the essence of my feelings – humility, excitement, challenge, gratitude, and engagement. These emotions are mine, too, and I hope is, or will become, your attitude about your futures.

First, I have felt humidity. I am humbled to receive an honorary degree from NYU. I am especially grateful that this honor has been bestowed on me during the presidential tenure of John Sexton, an old friend from his days as dean at the New York Law School, and by a distinguished board of trustees led by Martin Lipton.

I am so glad John is wearing a Yankee cap. My most enduring memory of John is his coming to our formal Saturday luncheon meeting at the law school, dressed in jeans and sneakers, sporting a Yankees cap, after watching his daughter Katie playing softball. Knowing John, I bet it is the same cap he is wearing today. I just hope he washed it.

Many of us take for granted that we have graduated from college. We forget that for many of our parents and grandparents, college was on unobtainable dream. It is still a dream for many, even here in the United States. You are all privileged to have received the education that NYU offers, and I hope that you will always treasure that gift as much as I treasure my degree. 

I am also deeply humble to share this honor with Father Patrick Desbois, David Brooks and Charles Weisman, three men who have helped us better to understand our history and the nature and social worlds we live in. I am fortunate, as you are, to share this day with them

Second, I have felt excitement in returning to New York. My new home, Washington, DC, is lovely and I have been warmly welcomed by my new colleagues, the court family and the residents of my new city. But every time I cross a bridge or tunnel to return to New York for a visit, my heart sighs with joy. I love this city and all it has given me. 

Some of you came to New York for the first time to attend NYU, and a very few of you may never return. But I promise you – New York is now a permanent part of who you are. Stand in the middle in a New York City street and you sense immediately the magnitude of this city. I remember coming to Manhattan as a child to visit the Empire State Building, looking up and being amazed that I could not see its top. Walk around Manhattan and you will inevitably see tourists craning their necks upwards to find the tops of buildings and bumping into New Yorkers hurrying somewhere. The feeling of bigness can be overwhelming initially, but there is a magic in being a part of the city once you have lived here. I love having New York in me.

I hope that you will always carry with you the excitement of your student days in the city, the professors who opened your minds to new experiences, the life friends you have made and the joy of basking in the knowledge of how much you and your families have done to earn today’s celebration.

I also hope that the city has left you with the emotion of constant challenge in evokes in me. And that is that third emotion I want to talk about – challenge.

Many complain of the hustle and bustle of New York City. After I graduated from law school, I lived for a couple years in a suburban area in New Jersey and commuted to work at the district attorney’s office in lower Manhattan. The week I came to my senses and moved back to the city, I was walking its streets when a fire engine and police car screeched by with sirens blazing and a man began to howl next to me.

The cacophony of New York is as overwhelming at times as its size. Nothing is small in this city. Everything is large, big and noisy – including its problems. Yet the city does not merely survive – it thrives. Having been a part of the fabric of this city, you will always carry its energy inside you, and the city will challenge you to do big things – to accomplish as much as you can, to work at bettering the world in every way you know how.

So how do you that? I don’t know.

I hope your education has taught you not to be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. It may be the most important lesson of your schooling

Every one of you has had a moment in your time at NYU when a new thought, insight or piece of knowledge excited to you. Find more of those moments. The key to success is continuously maintaining an ever-present curiosity, openness to and joy in learning new things.

When I was a child, my dreams were simple. I dreamed first about graduating from college. Up to that point, none of my family in New York had done that. Then I grew bold and dreamed about becoming a lawyer and perhaps someday a judge. But the only kind of judge I knew was the trial judge on Perry Mason. I did not know what the Supreme Court was, and you can’t aspire to do things you don’t know about.

So how did I become a Supreme Court justice? How did Steve Jobs, who grew up in an era when there were no PCs, create Apple, one of the most innovative companies in history? Steve Jobs, who recently passed away, was a college dropout who was fired from Apple during his first tenure there. In a commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, he talked about three ingredients to his success. First, trusting his gut; second, liking what he chose to do; and three, living each day as if it were his last.

His advice, and the advice I offer you, is not a map for your future, but an attitude about your future. That attitude would let you find satisfaction in the choices you make and achieve your dreams you never imagined.

For me, curiosity about the world and people I interacted with and maintaining an excitement about new learning propelled me forward in my career. In law school I studied international law. I met Bob Morgenthau, the famed Manhattan district attorney, completely by chance. I was wandering the halls of my law school when I spied a table of food in the back of a room and decided to sit in to hear Bob, the last speaker being introduced. At the food line we met and shortly thereafter he offered me a job. I was interviewing at the State Department and with law firms doing international work, but like Steve Jobs, I went with my gut and took the job Bob Morgenthau told me would be the greatest responsibility a young lawyer could have, as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

That meeting, with a lifelong mentor, charted a new course in my life. That curiosity, in listening to a speaker I knew nothing about – and in a free dinner – started my career.

Look, disappointment and uncertainty are constant companions in life’s pursuits. As happy as all of you are today, I am sure you are little sad about leaving some of your friends and leaving your familiar and comfortable routines, a little fearful of the unknown challenges life will bring, finding a career in uncertain economic times, and a little anxious about a future wrought with problems like wars, diseases and crime.

Being a little frightened, as I have been taking every step in my life, including becoming a Supreme Court justice, is natural in on avoidable. But being hopeful and remaining open to the joy of a new experience can counterbalance that anxiety and help you meet each new challenge.

A Sister of Charity who taught me at my high school sent me a letter recently telling me she remembered me and my high school graduation speech well. She described my speech as “incessantly optimistic.” I wasn’t sure whether she was complimenting me or the speech, but I do plead guilty. I am incessantly optimistic. That continuous excitement in new learning can give you hope and help you meet every challenge you encounter.

In reflecting on my career, I experience a fourth emotion – gratitude. No one but no one succeeds alone. Your families and friends have supported you through your schooling, your parents who sit here, and your friends have done nothing but root for you. Like my mother, who’s sitting up there. 

Your professors here shaped your education. Your coworkers and future jobs will help you learn your work. Your mentors will teach you further. Remember to be grateful. Feeling blessed by what others give to you, recognizing their contributions, and spending time cultivating your relationships with family and friends is critical to finding happiness in life.

I have often spoken about one of the most meaningful moments of my last Senate confirmation process. It was the day I saw my younger brother, Juan, the little pesky kid who I did everything to get rid of and beat up constantly, on television crying while he talked about me. I knew instantly how deeply he loved me, and boy did I regret those beatings just a little bit. That moment sustained me through the most arduous parts of my confirmation process and has comforted me in the transition of becoming a justice.

Never walk alone in your future paths. Take time to build your relationships as carefully as you craft your careers.

Finally the last emotion I’ve experienced has been the joy of engagement. It’s a hackneyed statement, but life is not a spectator sport. To squeeze from life its fullness, to be happy in this world in the short period of time we are given, to find meaning in life, you have to be active giving members of your communities.

Neither your life nor the world you live in just happens. You control the quality of your lives and your communities it is only in giving to others that you can find meaning and satisfaction in what you do.

Some of us give in the type of work and pro bono activities we undertake. Others do so through church, neighborhood or school opportunities. You don’t need to do a particular job to give to society. But you do need incessant optimism to compel you to give to others.

So under this little cloudy Bronx sky that’s held off from raining for us, stands a kid who grew up in a public housing project and who is today a Supreme Court justice. I am here because of the help of many, and because curiosity, gratitude and engagement let me dream big.

Under this same sky today, thousands of you, kids whose families have dreamed of a lifetime of success for their graduating children, you have taken a critical first step to achieving your family’s dreams. And now, it is within you and the attitude, the tune you create to define your own dreams and your own futures.

Just keep dreaming and keep enjoying the process of new discoveries.

Congratulations, Class of 2012. Dream big and achieve much.

Thank you.


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