December 4, 2012 | Borough of Manhattan Community College
Karen DeSoto is an on-air legal consultant for NBCNews.com, CNN, and The Today Show, but this semester, she was a special guest at BMCC.
DeSoto recently spoke to BMCC students about her transition from shy New Jersey high school student, to in-demand lawyer. Her visit was part of the Latino Voices Forum, an event facilitated by Students in Free Enterprise Club (SIFE) in collaboration with BMCC’s Hispanic Heritage Month Committee.
SIFE President Steven Aguilar introduced DeSoto, who met with students in a large classroom on the main campus.
“Women like you have powerful voices in society,” said Aguilar about DeSoto. “Now is the perfect time for students to become leaders like you—both at school, and in their families.”
To the students, Aguilar said, “We can learn a lot from Karen DeSoto. She’s a great role model for Latinos everywhere.”
New Jersey’s stand-out lawyer
DeSoto, who is Puerto Rican, surprised the audience by immediately announcing that she decided to become a public defender when she witnessed her brother being teased.
Her elder brother, she explained, was dark-skinned and she was “so light-skinned that no one ever believed that I was Puerto Rican. I cannot tell you how many people say, ‘I had no idea you were Puerto Rican’.”
Growing up in a more middle-class New Jersey neighborhood, DeSoto was “the only minority in school” and passed an IQ test with flying colors, which “surprised” her teachers.
These incidents inspired DeSoto to attend law school at Temple University, where she “faced all sorts of discrimination.”
“When I entered college, 95% of the students were not Hispanic,” she said, acknowledging times are different now. “I am proud of my Hispanic heritage.”
Over the years, DeSoto has emerged as one of the New Jersey’s most powerful attorneys, handling many criminal defense, civil rights, and employment discrimination cases.
Find “humorous quips”
DeSoto’s career was also inspired by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “He was just so involved, and influential, in election law. He made it as far as he did without being in jail permanently.”
The rest of her speech reminded students about volunteering; giving back—and taking advantage of networking opportunities.
“As much as I got knocked down throughout my career, for wanting to do the right thing, in my darkest times, I’d volunteer,” explained DeSoto, who was recently honored by the City of Bayonne Youth Center for her charitable contributions. “When things got hard, changing the focus to someone else can help turn things around—for you, and others.”
Additionally, DeSoto said, she got her on-air start on Court TV when a friend asked her to step in for another lawyer who cancelled her on-air appearance.
From that opportunity, other TV gigs and opened up, and now DeSoto’s appeared on more than five major news networks.
And lastly, DeSoto made BMCC students chuckle when she also credited Bugs Bunny as an inspiration.
“He taught me how to have a humorous quip at any given time—it can change a tense situation,” she smiled.
Engage in the world
“Karen DeSoto spoke with students in an honest, open and truthful voice about the challenges that await them in the workplace,” said Juan Lopez, BMCC Professor and co-advisor of SIFE. “She encouraged students to read a newspaper ever day and to be engaged in the world around them.”
SIFE President Steven Aguilar agreed.
“Ms. DeSoto discussed the many ways she fought against discrimination and corruption,” he said. “She also answered questions from the audience. I really appreciated her candid honesty and how she reminded us to always help someone in need.”