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East Lansing — U.S. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor overcame childhood adversity to become the first Latina woman on the nation’s highest court and “was the perfect affirmative action child,” she told students Monday at Michigan State University.

“Don’t look at how I got in. Look at what I did,” said Sotomayor, who graduated from Princeton University and Yale Law School after growing up in housing projects in New York City.

Sotomayor defended affirmative action policies four years after voting to strike down Michigan’s ban on universities considering race as a factor for admissions, which was upheld in a 6-2 ruling. Sotomayor wrote a spirited dissent in a case argued by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office.

Affirmative action “got me in the door,” Sotomayor said, noting that universities often give admissions preference to children of alumnus and hand out scholarships to athletes whose academics alone may not qualify them for the school.

“You get in because you’re giving something of value to the community,” she said. “And so is being different. So is coming from a background that a majority of students are not from. The question is not, how did I get in? It’s: What did I do when I got there? And with pride, I can say I graduated at the top of my class.”

Michigan voters approved a ballot proposal in 2006 that amended the state Constitution to prohibit affirmative action at public universities. In her dissent arguing against the ban, Sotomayor said a "majority of the Michigan electorate changed the basic rules of the political process in that State in a manner that uniquely disadvantaged racial minorities."

The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held there is no authority for courts to “set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

Sotomayor spoke to incoming MSU students Monday morning during a commencement ceremony at the Breslin Center and answered student questions at a follow-up event down the street at the Kellogg Center Hotel.

She shared lessons from her personal life and her 2013 memoir "My Beloved World." MSU freshmen each received a signed copy of the book over the summer in concert with East Lansing’s One Book One Community inititiative.

Alia Jones, a sophomore student from Canton, called Sotomayor an “inspiration for so many of color, myself included,” as she asked the Supreme Court justice about how race and gender influenced her career.

Sotomayor recalled instances of discrimination, including an employer asking if she only got into Princeton because she was Puerto Rican and a childhood experience where a friend’s father derided “spics” as he watched a Puerto Rican parade.

But “you’re not a black woman, you’re a black woman who has had a lifetime of experiences that make you you,” Sotomayor told Jones.

“It was very powerful,” Jones said after the event, indicating she was especially interested in Sotomayor’s comments because she is considering the law but is not sure which career path to take.

“When you see somebody be the first of their kind, it is definitely inspiring and makes you think you can do that as well," Jones said.

Berkley Soros, a freshman from East Lansing who also asked Sotomayor a question, said it will be hard to top the experience during her collegiate tenure.

“She’s profound,” Soros said. “She’s incredibly elegant, and it is just astounding to have someone of such a high stature in our government system in front of you in person — and to realize she’s still a person.”

Sotomayor's memoir describes her rise from humble beginnings growing up in a housing project in the Brronx, where she was largely raised by her grandmother after her alcoholic father died when she was nine. She was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama. 

Sotomayor worked as an assistant prosecutor in New York and as a corporate attorney before she was first appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1991 by then-President George W. Bush. She was promoted to the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 1997 by then-President Bill Clinton. 

While she said little about cases that have come before her, Sotomayor encouraged students to be curious about the world and share what they learn with others. As a judge, she said, “you become a temporary expert in every case you hear.”

In the last year on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor said she learned how credit card companies operate and how cell phone towers work.

In a landmark 5-4 ruling in June, Sotomayor joined Chief Justice John Roberts in holding that police need a search warrant to access information about the location of an individual’s cell phone. Sotomayor joined a dissent in a 5-4 ruling that allowed American Express to continue controversial merchant rules.

“Learning how to be a curious person, someone who is fluent in the new and unfamiliar, will serve you well in any profession,” Sotomayor told students.

Sotomayor told students to find “the right people” to share their college experience with. She recounted her need for support her first semester as an undergraduate at Princeton University, where she was “devastated” by a C+ grade on a paper in an American history class, her worst grade since fourth grade.

“Think carefully about the quality of the people you are befriending — and I don’t mean do they listen to the right music, are they wearing the right clothes, are they cool,” she said. “Instead, ask yourself: Are they good people?"

Sotomayor also recommended freshmen devote a part of each day to doing something nice for another person, describing how her “modest effort” in college to form a volunteer translation program at a psychiatric facility taught her the importance of community service.

“For me, the law has been the way to make that difference,” she said. “I became a lawyer and a judge because I discovered a vocation and a passion for the law. It was a way for me to help people.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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