It is early June, and across America college graduation season is in full swing. At a very special ceremony at a New York City community college, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the featured speaker.
Truth be told, the joy is unconfined at every graduation ceremony at Hostos Community College, a public bi-lingual college in the South Bronx, the heart of New York's vibrant Latino community. Most of the 350 students who graduated here on Friday evening were either immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Incoming Hostos President Matos Rodriguez, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, said that for every one of the students, the completion of their two years of study leading to their associate degree is a proud achievement. "It's a phenomenal day, not just for me, but for all the students who graduate, for the entire Hostos [College] family and for the Bronx! It really shows that community colleges in this country are part of the American Dream," he said.
Rodriguez acknowledged that the evening's pre-ceremony chatter - made up of over 80 mother tongues - was even more excited than usual. That's because the commencement speaker was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "We are so delighted to have her here. it is so energizing for the students. We are so proud!"
Justice Sotomayor was born and raised in this neighborhood, and her immigrant mother graduated from Hostos with a nursing degree in 1973, thus paving the way for her children's own success. Class Valedictorian Melissa Diaz, whose mom also graduated from Hostos, had this to say about tonight's "local girl makes very very good" story. "Whenever I need some inspiration, I will be sure to look to her for that. The fact that a Latino woman is coming from the South Bronx shouldn't be an exception. It should be one of the rules. The more people that graduate from communities like this and make something of themselves the way she did, the more we become a more egalitarian society," she said.
Inside the auditorium where the ceremony took place, the atmosphere was understandably more formal. Yet Justice Sotomayor chose to speak from the heart, not the bench. "Each day when I walk into my courtroom my back tingles with the blessings I have been given. Tonight is another magical moment for me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to return to my home, The Bronx," she said.
Indeed, Sotomayor connected effortlessly with her audience.
"As you all know, our family is a lot like your family. We come from the same background, we have lived many of the same struggles and we have faced many of the same challenges that you have faced. All of you who have come from a foreign land in this audience, all of you who are the first college graduates in your families, all of you who have struggled so hard to get where you are, you are living proof, like my brother and I, that we can make it," she said.
In addition to her commencement address, Justice Sotomayor had other official duties to perform at the commencement, including the formal investiture of President Rodriguez and the acceptance of the college's Medal of Honor. Her mother, Celina Sotomayor was also presented with an award. However, the justice was clear that the full glory of the night belonged to the hopeful graduates.
""We celebrate with you today, with a full understanding of what you have achieved and we are filled with joy in your success. You will breathe life into the dreams of the next generation. You're the generation that followed me and your children will follow us. And together we're going to make this a better world," she said.
The evening continued with the granting of degrees and much post commencement revelry among family and friends of the graduates. Many of them may live in the huge low-income housing complex that has just been named in Justice Sotomayor's honor. It is not known whether she passed the structure on her way back to Washington.