Tani Cantil-Sakauye wasn't always so assertive.

Being an Asian woman from a male-dominated family, she was taught not to raise her voice or question authority. She let people interrupt her frequently.

But one day, as a young prosecutor, she decided to change. When a defense attorney tried to talk over her, she cut him off, provoking a courtroom argument that had to be settled by the judge.

"He said, 'She interrupted me,'" she recalled Friday. "And I said, 'He interrupted me.' The judge said, 'Why, Ms. Cantil, I think you're right. You may proceed.'"

It was an epiphany of sorts for Cantil-Sakauye, who went on to distinguish herself at the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office and later, get appointed to be a judge herself.

In 2011, after serving on the appeals bench, she was sworn in as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, the first Filipina-American woman to hold the post.

"Sometimes I say to myself, 'My great-grandmother would kill for the opportunities I had,'" she said.

On Friday, the 54-year-old jurist shared her story with about 1,000 middle and high school students gathered at Sonoma State University's Green Music Center.

The event was co-sponsored by 10,000 Degrees, a San Rafael-based nonprofit focused on putting 10,000 students from low-income households on the path to college each year. Friday's program, titled "Imagine Yourself ...," was designed to inspire students by giving them an opportunity to engage in dialogue with civic leaders who overcame challenging backgrounds.

Many who listened to the state's top judge and other speakers said they were inspired to pursue higher education.

"It really gives me hope if an Asian can become chief justice of California," said Peter Morales, a seventh-grader at Windsor Middle School.

Elodie McCrea, an eighth-grader at Santa Rosa Middle School, said she learned how important it is to chase her dream, even if someone tries to get in her way.

"Anything is possible," she said. "That's why education is important."

The sentiment was echoed by Angelica Quirarte, one of the featured speakers. She said her family had been in the United States about two months when she got her first taste of public humiliation.

She was in fifth-grade, standing before her class in a paper beard and stovepipe hat, preparing to give a speech on Abraham Lincoln.

She opened her mouth and everybody laughed, including the teacher.

"I had no choice but to stand there," she said. "I felt like an outcast."

The daughter of a restaurant waiter could have fallen into despair or given up.

But she didn't. She got a library card, studied hard and graduated from Novato High in 2009. She went onto be the first in her family to attend college, graduating from UC Santa Barbara.

Now, 13 years after she crossed the border, Quirarte is enrolled in the Capitol Fellows program run by the governor's office and the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University.

She credited 10,000 Degrees with helping her achieve her success.

"That's the key," she said. "To take the advantages you have, big or small."

Cantil-Sakauye, who was born and raised in Sacramento, said she came from a family of farm workers with little education. But her parents encouraged her to go to college. She went on to be a lawyer and judge.

She talked about meeting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was faced with finding a replacement for retiring Chief Justice Ronald George.

After being called to his private chambers and getting grilled about how to pronounce her name, Cantil-Sakauye walked out thinking she wouldn't get the job. Then she heard someone running behind her in the hallway.

It was the governor, coins jingling in his pockets.

"He's yelling and running after me in the halls," she recounted. "He said, 'You're my chief. But you can't tell anyone yet.'"