It's not every day college students are graced with the presence and words of wisdom from a Supreme Court justice.
But on Thursday, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor shared plenty of personal advice with Clemson University students and faculty members who came to hear her speak.
"Have an idea of what you want to do in your head. Work hard to get there, but be flexible enough to change course when those unlikely opportunities come your way," Sotomayor told a capacity crowd at Clemson's Brooks Center for the Performing Arts. "And every time you’re scared, remember my words: the worst thing to do is to ever live your life regretting that you didn’t try."
Appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 2009 by President Barack Obama, Sotomayor credited several "unlikely opportunities" for her successful career. During her hourlong Q&A session, moderated by her longtime friend and Clemson professor Vernon Burton, she kept the audience captivated not only with her story, but especially with how she told it.
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A few minutes into her talk, which focused primarily on her personal story and steered clear of current political events, Sotomayor put her hands on the sides of her chair, stood up on stage and headed for the stairs leading into the audience.
"For some of you who may know me, I don't like sitting still," she said. "I was a child who didn't sit still. I was known as a troublemaker — I still am."
She made her way down to the audience and made sure to advise attendees to stay seated because U.S. marshals aren't fond of quick movements. The crowd laughed.
Sotomayor weaved her way through the audience, sitting with different groups of students for a minute or two — just enough time to smile for a photo with them before answering another question in her next breath.
"Come, take a picture! I can multitask," she said, calling over one of Clemson's staff photographers to capture the scene.
Burton read her questions, which were submitted by students and selected in advance, as she ventured around the auditorium, stopping to sit with a new group of people with each question she answered.
She talked about her youth — growing up with parents who expected little from her and provided her with even less. She went into detail about her time at Princeton and how isolated she felt due to her upbringing, which was vastly different from those of other students.
"To dream about something you don’t know is impossible. So as a child, there was no way to dream of being a Supreme Court justice," Sotomayor said. "My point is, being at Princeton was unexpected. ... I don’t think there is anything I've done in life that hasn’t been an unexpected turn."
Sotomayor's visit cost Clemson more than $450 in travel and event-related costs, said Robin Denny, Clemson's director of media relations. Though Sotomayor did not charge a speaker's fee, private donations were made to supplement the university's contribution, Denny said.
Students were quick to snatch up tickets and submit questions, Denny said.
One student's question asked Sotomayor what advice she would give her undergraduate self, if she could. She laughed, and said she'd definitely try not to worry so much about picking the wrong major or taking the wrong class.
"I would be less traumatized by every choice I made as an undergraduate," Sotomayor said. "The reality I realized as I've grown older is that there are no really bad choices — unless you engage in criminal activity."
She encouraged students to have faith in themselves — and for those interested in studying law, faith in the judicial system — and advised students to jump on every opportunity they come across.
"In life I think there are three components to success: hard work, overcoming your fears about taking chances and a little bit of luck," Sotomayor said. "That’s really been the story of my life."