The short commencement address to graduates inside the Colonial Life Arena touched on the harsh realities that lie ahead for many graduates: the job market is tougher, and average college debt is growing annually.
But using vivid examples from two key figures in her life—her mother and South Carolina native and historian Vernon Burton— she delivered an uplifting message that honed on the relentless pursuit of excellence in the midst of any circumstance.
Her speech addressed none of her legal scholarship that earned her a place on America’s highest court and talked little of her professional successes.
It was a personal, reflective address that attributed many of her current beliefs to her mother, a Puerto Rico native and Army veteran who managed to support two children in the Bronx by constantly working and never giving up hope for a better life.
Sotomayor’s father died when she was 9, but her mother funded private school and college because “that was the best for her children.”
“Education was always paramount to my mother,” Sotomayor said.
At the age of 45, Sotomayor’s mother returned to college herself in an effort to make more money for her family.
Her mother’s values were supplemented by her encounter with Vernon Burton during her time as a student at Princeton University. Burton, a native of Ninety Six, South Carolina, was a hunter and fisher who often sold boiled peanuts to help his family. His Southern drawl came in deep contrast with the New York accent Sotomayor carries.
“It seemed a very deep chasm existed between his world and mine,” Sotomayor said.
But the justice came to become good friends with the hard working, incredibly intelligent and passionate Burton. The two often commiserated over stories of helping their families and working through adversity. Burton is now a distinguished professor at Coastal Carolina University.
Sotomayor said the opportunity to serve as a Supreme Court justice led her often to pinch herself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. She called the opportunity to speak and receive a honorary doctorate in law from USC another “pinch myself” moment.
Her comments were preceded by remarks from USC President Harris Pastides, who urged graduates to participate in service and make the world a better place. The president called the sitting group “the leaders of tomorrow” but reminded them that “opportunity won’t come to you in an email or a text.”
“Never forget this day, and never forget Carolina,” Pastides said.