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Elva Alaniz startled to see her own image in a self-portrait from a top American judge.
Two years after authorities deported her dad to Mexico and a stroke stole her 9-year-old sister's memory, the ninth-grader from Magna said she draws strength from Sonia Sotomayor's story. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court justice climbed into sold-out stands at the University of Utah's Huntsman Center to sit with Alaniz's class and others, doling out advice and touching on themes from her recently released memoir, "My Beloved World."
"I think it'll help me," said the 14-year-old Matheson Junior High School student, citing the death of Sotomayor's father before she turned 10 and only fleeting moments spent with her mom. "It's gonna be a struggle, but I gotta fight to be the first one to go to college and help my family out."
Alaniz, an aspiring social worker, did not meet Sotomayor on Wednesday. But she and other first-generation and Latino teens were Sotomayor's focal point as the justice answered a series of questions culled previously from online submissions.
"Never give up on yourself," Sotomayor told the audience of about 5,200. And, if you think you don't belong, she said, "bear in mind that you're really not that unusual."
Sotomayor added that she continues to feel out of place among top U.S. officials. "At the State of the Union, it's very surreal for me. Here are all these people who appear on television, and then there's little old me."
The justice scaled stadium stairs in an informal, 90-minute session, mostly ignoring her security team from the U.S. Marshals office and wedging into back rows to plop beside youngsters and chat about her love of sculpture and reading.
Tickets for the free public speech at the Huntsman Center had sold out weeks beforehand.
She waved off requests from moderator Christine Durham, Utah's first female Supreme Court justice, that she return to the dais.
"I'm gonna finish taking pictures with these kids," Sotomayor said, posing for a photo.
The justice addressed topics ranging from how she manages to separate her own views from the law she is required to protect "I have faith in the legal system." to how she regards her Puerto Rican heritage "You are a product of your family, their history and the riches that they can give you."
She counseled students to find mentors, ask lots of questions and seek to understand other points of view.
But the conversation stayed largely personal. Sotomayor avoided addressing gay marriage or any issue before the nation's highest court. Such questions would have been filtered prior to the event.
In her book, Sotomayor, recounts growing up in the Bronx with an alcoholic father who died when she was 9 years old, her spunky grandmother and dedicated mom.
She became the first Latina and the third woman justice when President Barack Obama appointed her in 2009.
As a kid, she had juvenile diabetes and learned to give herself the insulin shots. Her drive to be a lawyer, inspired by Nancy Drew and television characters, led her from high school valedictorian to prosecutor to judge.
On Wednesday, University of Utah President David Pershing looked on, smiling, as suited guards trailed Sotomayor up the stands.
"The thing that you just cannot help but see she just excites the students," he said. "She's a wonderful role model," especially for first-generation students.
Before closing the question-and-answer session, Sotomayor encouraged students to look for the good in people.
"Life is hard. And if you spend your time worrying about the struggles, you'll never live it," she said. "There is so much beauty in the world."
The U.'s MUSE Project, which aims to heighten undergraduates' experiences, sponsored the event. Its director, English professor Mark Matheson, called Sotomayor's memoir "one of the really great books I've read about growing up" and particularly pertinent as Utah's Latino population climbs.
"We really do have a diverse and highly aspirational society here in Utah," Matheson said.
Sotomayor graduated from Princeton in 1976 and from Yale Law School in 1979. She was an assistant district attorney in New York and a U.S. district court judge in New York before she joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Utah is the last state in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court's region to get an official visit from Sotomayor, who oversees the group. She has touched down in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Wyoming, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said in an email statement.
Alaniz, the 14-year-old from Magna, said she would see the justice speak again.
"I would say it was a fun experience," she said. "I would never have thought she would've been the type of lady that would come into the audience."
Timeline: Upped security
Lockers were available, but none were needed.
In a departure from protocol on university campuses, no guns were allowed in the Huntsman Center for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's speech. But no one brought a weapon to the venue, according to University of Utah officials.
Under state law, concealed weapon holders are permitted to carry guns. But the U.S. Marshal's office, which directs security for Supreme Court justices, required the extra restriction. Laptops and coffee mugs also were not allowed.
2007: Officials also banned weapons at a talk by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had by then left office.
2008: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spoke on the University of Utah campus. Guns were not barred from the venue.
2014: Feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian called off a lecture at USU after school officials said state law prevented them from banning the weapons. That was after an anonymous emailer promised "the deadliest school shooting in American history" if Sarkeesian delivered her critique of sexist video gaming culture.