U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spent most of Monday afternoon and evening as an honored guest and inspirational speaker to Touro College law students in Central Islip.
Sotomayor, 59, received the Bruce K. Gould Book Award Monday night before more than 1,000 students, alumni, faculty, staff and the public gathered in an auditorium and adjacent overflow rooms and classrooms at the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center.
Her autobiography, "My Beloved World," released earlier this year, details her path from a daughter of immigrants raised in Bronx public housing to her appointment about four years ago to the nation's highest court.
In accepting the award, Sotomayor said she wanted people to know the value of family and education.
"I expect every single one of you to create your own road," she said, casually taking a wireless microphone and walking out from behind the podium.
Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court, fielded unscreened questions from students who later excitedly described the intimate conversation as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The school has seen an uptick in minority students, particularly Latinos, college officials said.
Earlier in the day, the justice held three back-to-back small-group talks with students that were closed to reporters. Student leaders and winners of a lottery were among the groups, which were no larger than 50 people at a time.
"She's my hero and it is surreal how normal she is," said Tesla Carrasquillo, a third-year student from Astoria, Queens. "As a Latina, I don't have too many role models in the legal field. She grew up the same way I did."
Carrasquillo, 30, emigrated from Honduras with her family at 8 months old. Her mother did not speak English and her father left the family soon after arriving.
"She makes me want to do better," Carrasquillo said.
Touro Law school Dean Patricia Salkin, who took the helm about a year ago, said the smaller group meetings were Sotomayor's idea.
"She really wanted to meet the students," Salkin said.
About 38 percent of the incoming class at Touro Law is minority. Hispanics are the largest group, at more than 17 percent.
A visit from such a high-profile figure made everyone at Touro Law proud, said Timothy Finnegan, a third-year student who is president of the school's Student Bar Association.
"To meet someone who is going to have such an impact on this country like that, is something I think we will all remember," Finnegan, 25, of Islip, said. "I could be 50 and she could still be sitting on the bench."
Through the year, the school attracts several legal experts, but Sotomayor's visit was arguably the most prominent for the current class of students.
"This is like the Michael Jordan of judges," said Christopher Dor, 25, a second-year student from Syracuse.
The book award is in its 21st year and is named after 1984 Touro Law graduate Bruce Gould, an attorney and philanthropist. Gould sold his family-owned legal publishing company, Gould Publications, to Lexis-Nexis in 2005.