Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was seven years old, at a time when most diabetics weren't expected to survive beyond the age of 50. Her father was an alcoholic who died when she was nine. And though she was smart and determined, her family lacked financial resources, as well as the knowledge to help her navigate the pathways to success. Yet having to contend with challenges didn't stop Sotomayor's rise — in fact, they helped forge her already strong character into one that persevered and grew even in the face of failure.
From a young age, Sotomayor's battle against diabetes drove her to succeed
Sotomayor's parents initially planned to handle the insulin injections their daughter required to live. But her mother worked long hours as a nurse and her father's hands shook when he attempted this task. This prompted Sotomayor's decision to handle her own insulin shots. She did this even though she could barely reach the stove to boil water and she'd only recently learned to tell time (a skill required to track the necessary minutes for sterilizing syringes and needles).
Being diabetic also heightened Sotomayor's inner drive. Until treatment protocols changed, she spent years believing her illness would shorten her lifespan; as she said in one interview, "It drove me in a way that perhaps nothing else might have to accomplish as much as I could as early as possible."
She was discriminated against at Princeton
When she'd first been advised to apply to Ivy League schools, Sotomayor hadn't been aware of what "Ivy League" meant — so she'd asked for more information, which set her on a path toward Princeton. She enrolled in 1972.
The school was a big change from a housing project in the Bronx and she confided in a friend that she felt like she was in a different world. Told she sounded like Alice in Wonderland, Sotomayor had no idea who her friend was talking about and asked who Alice was. "Ignorance are things you don't know but can learn. You're stupid when you don't ask questions," Sotomayor said during a talk in 2014.
In the midst of finding her footing, she also had to deal with discrimination from the students and alumni; they were hostile to the women and minorities their school had recently begun to admit, sentiments they freely shared in letters to the school paper. But even when her grades fell short in her first year, Sotomayor didn't let herself get taken in by claims that she didn't belong. Instead, she addressed her academic shortcomings by studying grammar and learning new vocabulary words over summer breaks. She ended up graduating with honors.
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One of her biggest life lessons is 'always ask for help'
Learned from her days at Princeton, Sotomayor continues to emphasize the importance of inquiry in uncertain situations. Once a woman spotted her injecting insulin in a restaurant bathroom. Sotomayor later overheard this woman tell a companion that the associate justice must be addicted to drugs. "Madam, I am not a drug addict. I am diabetic," Sotomayor informed her. "If you don't know why someone's doing something, just ask them. Don't assume the worst in people." The experience inspired the justice to write a children's book, Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You, about the value of seeing and respecting differences.
"I’m completely honest about the many adversities in my life," Sotomayor has stated. "One of my main lessons is to always ask for help." She was doing so at least as far back as fifth grade; wanting to improve in school, she went to a more successful student for pointers on studying. She applied this approach at Princeton as well.
Though initially reluctant, Sotomayor also came to accept the need to make those in her life aware of her diabetes, which saved her life when she collapsed in her hotel room after traveling to Italy for a wedding. When Sotomayor didn't meet a friend as scheduled, he and his wife located her hotel and convinced staff to open the door to her room. Without this intervention, she could have died.
Sotomayor also relied on outside support when she went through a rough patch after her nomination to the Supreme Court. She's confessed that some of the attacks she was under, such as being called an unintelligent bully, made her think about withdrawing from consideration. But friends stepped in to encourage her. With their backing, she eventually joined the highest court in the land.
The U.S. Supreme Court justices in June 2017: (front row from left) U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas and Associate Justice Stephen Breyer; (back row from left) Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch. ">
Sotomayor believes that failure helps 'you grow in positive ways'
Adapting to changing situations is another Sotomayor trait that aided her when faced with adversity. After she was told that being a diabetic meant she couldn't join the police, she selected a new dream of becoming a lawyer and judge. She knew pregnancy was dangerous for someone with diabetes and ruled out adoption because she was afraid of dying young. But instead of succumbing to regret, she embraced being an aunt and godmother.
Sotomayor knows that confronting challenges can lead to positive results. "I'm a firm believer that adversity and failure are things you want to have," she stated while talking at Cornell University in 2018. "Those things help you grow, and inevitably they help you grow in positive ways. It's when you let them define you that they become negative, and that's something I would never permit those things to do. Sonia is Sonia not because of them, but with them."
In addition, Sotomayor understands that "if you think that working hard is going to make you reach all your dreams, you might live your life disappointed. But if you work hard and you have a dream, you're going to arrive further than you started. You're going to learn something in the process." The application of this philosophy over the course of her life has taken her far.
She also believes in the power of luck
Sotomayor also overcame adversity due in part to good fortune. Her family may have been poor, but they were supportive, with her mother understanding the importance of education. And if Sotomayor, born in 1954, had arrived on the scene a few years earlier, she might not have had the opportunity to attend Princeton and Yale Law School. "Without affirmative action, I couldn't have even participated in the race of a good education," Sotomayor told Yale students and faculty in 2014. "I didn't even know there was a race being run."
Sotomayor understands that some people may encounter insurmountable problems. She wrote in her 2013 memoir, My Beloved World: "I've seen life beat people down until they can’t get up." Luckily, her memoir also notes, "But I have never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with."