Condoleezza Rice

College of William & Mary Commencement Address - May 16, 2015

Condoleezza Rice
May 16, 2015— Williamsburg, Virginia
Print friendly

Thank you very, very much for that tremendous welcome and for this tremendous honor. It's quite something to be named in the same breath as Benjamin Franklin [laughter], and indeed I was the 66th secretary of state of the United States. The first, of course, was an alumnus of William & Mary – Thomas Jefferson. [cheers and applause]

I want to thank my great friend and your chancellor, Bob Gates. I want to thank you, too, Bob, for your life of exemplary service to our country. I want to thank the president of the college. President Reveley, you have done such a marvelous job of leading this fine institution. To the rector, Todd Stottlemyer, and the board – thank you for your leadership of William & Mary. To the faculty who have guided these graduates through their academic paces to academic success. And to the staff, who have nurtured them and cared for them. To family and friends – thank you for your support and love of these graduates. And to the class of 2015 – congratulations. [applause]

Now it's great to be here in Tribe country. As an academic I'm pleased to be here because this is such a respected place of learning and it's had such an important role in our history of our country. As a southerner, it's nice to be a little closer to my roots. And as a sports fan, I want you to know that thanks to your football coach, Coach Laycock, I now have enough t-shirts and hats and golf balls to be a member of the tribe for the rest of my life. [laughter and applause]

It's been many years since my own undergraduate commencement at the University of Denver. I remember almost everything about it. I remember how proud my parents were. I remember the closeness I felt to my classmates and my friends. I remember the thrill of achieving my academic goal. I do not remember, however, a single word that the commencement speaker said that day, [laughter] and you won't either, and I promise not to take it personally.

On this day, you can be forgiven for feeling a little restless and a little proud. You will have lasting memories of this place – the holiday celebrations at the Yule Log ceremony and your professors trying to outdo each other in the Raft Debates. And even I will remember the joy on your faces as I joined you last night with a candlelight ceremony.

Those experiences have been a part of your journey together, a journey that ends today in celebration of your educational achievements at this highly respected institution.

Education is transformative. It literally changes lives. That is why people over the centuries have worked so hard to become educated. Education, more than any other force, can help to erase arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture, and unlock every person's God-given potential. This belief is very personal for me. It has long been an article of faith in my family.

I first learned of this idea through stories about my paternal grandfather, a real family hero named John Wesley Rice, Sr. Granddaddy Rice was a sharecropper's son in Eutaw – that would be E-U-T-A-W, I'm not kidding – Alabama. [laughter] And when we was a young man of about 19, he decided he wanted to get book learning at a college. And so he asked how a colored man – that was the parlance of the day – could go to college. And they told him there was this little Presbyterian school about 30 miles away called Stillman College. So, he saved up his cotton for tuition, he went off to Stillman College, and after the first year they said, "So how are you going to pay for the second year?” He said, "Well, I'm out of cotton." They said, "You're out of luck." But thinking quickly, Granddaddy Rice said, "So, how are those other boys going to college?" They said, "Well you see, they have what's called a scholarship. And if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister then you could have a scholarship, too." Granddaddy Rice said, "You know, that is exactly what I had in mind." [laughter] And my family has been college-educated – and Presbyterian – ever since. [laughter and applause]

But you know, John Wesley Rice, Sr., was on to something. He knew that that education was going to allow him to become someone that otherwise he might never have even imagined, and he knew that it would resonate for generations of Rices to come. And indeed, my father would go on to become not just college-educated but advanced degreed and he would be an administrator at the University of Denver – and a Presbyterian minister. And his sister, my Aunt Theresa, would go to the University of Wisconsin in 1952. She would get a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and write books on Dickens. You think what I do is weird for a black person? She wrote books on Dickens! [laughter]

Because of all that my grandfather and others of my ancestors endured – poverty and segregation, really second-class citizenship – they understood that education was privilege, not a right, and that it therefore conferred certain obligations, and so today, I would like to talk a little bit with you about the imported responsibilities of educated people.

The first responsibility is really one that you have to yourself – the responsibility to find something that you're passionate about and follow it. I don't mean just any old thing that interests you, not just something that you might or might not do, but that one unique calling that you can't do without. As an educated person, you have the opportunity to spend your life doing what you love, and you should never forget that many people do not enjoy such a rare privilege. As you work to find your passion, you should know that sometimes your passion finds you. That's exactly what happened to me.

Because you see, my first passion was to become a concert pianist. I could read music before I could read. But at the end of my sophomore year, I started encountering prodigies – 12-year olds who could play from sight what it had taken me all year to learn, and I was 17. And I thought, "Uh oh. I'm about to end up playing piano in a piano bar or maybe teaching 13-year olds to murder Beethoven, or maybe I'll be one of those people playing the piano while you're shopping in the department store. [laughter] But I am not going to play Carnegie Hall."

So I went to my parents and I had the following conversation:

"Mom and Dad, I've decided to change my major."

"To what are you changing your major, dear?"

"I don't know, but it's not going to be music."

"You don't know what you want to do with your life."

"Well, it's my life."

"Well, it's our money. Find a major." [laughter]

I went back to college in desperate search of a major and my first thought was English literature. Now, with all due respect to the English literature faculty out there, I hated it. [laughter] So now it's winter quarter of junior year, and I decided on state and local government – that sounded practical. And my project was to interview the city water manager of Denver – the single-most boring man than I have met to this day. [laughter] And I thought, well that's not it either.

But then in the spring quarter of my junior year, I wandered into a course taught by a Czech refugee, a man named Josef Korbel, whose daughter was named Madeleine Albright. With that one class, I was hooked. I discovered that my passion was things international, things Russian, and diplomacy.

Needless to say, this was not what a young black girl from Birmingham was expected to do in the early 1970s. But it was like finding love. I couldn't explain it, but I knew it was right.

And you know something else – several years later as I was taking off from a helicopter from the South Lawn of the White House, serving President George H. W. Bush as his Soviet specialist, I sat there with Mikhail Gorbachev, his wife, the Secret Service and me, and I thought, "I am really glad I changed my major." [laughter]

It just shows you that your passion may be hard to spot. So keep an open mind and keep searching. And when you find your passion, it is yours – not what someone else thinks it should be. Don't let anyone define your passion for you because of your gender or the color of your skin. [applause]

The second responsibility of an educated person is commitment to reason. Here at William & Mary, you haven't been taught what to think, but how to think. How to ask questions, how to reject assumptions, how to seek knowledge. In short, how to exercise reason. This experience will sustain you for the rest of your lives.

But no one should assume that a life of reason is easy. To the contrary – it takes a great deal of courage and honesty. The only way that you will grow intellectually is by examining your opinions, attacking your prejudices constantly and completely with the force of your reason. This can be unsettling, and it can be tempting instead to opt for the comfort of a life without questions. It's possible today to live in an echo chamber that serves only to reinforce your own high opinion of yourself and what you think. That is a temptation that educated people must reject.

There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately. But at those times when you've decided that you are absolutely right, go and find someone who disagrees. Don't allow yourself the easy course of the constant "Amen" to everything that you say.

A commitment to reason leads to your third responsibility as an educated person, which is the rejection of false pride.

It is natural, especially among the educated, to want to credit your success to your own intelligence and hard work and judgement. And it is true, of course, that all of you sitting here today are here because you do, in fact, possess those qualities. But it is also true that merit alone did not get you to this day. There are many people in this country who are just as intelligent, just as hard working, just as deserving of success as you are. But for whatever reason – maybe a broken home, maybe poverty, maybe just bad luck – they did not enjoy the opportunities that you've had at William & Mary. Don't ever forget that. From this day on, promise to live your life humbly.

The fourth responsibility of an educated person is to be optimistic.

Too often, cynicism can be the fellow traveler of learning, and I surely understand why. History is full of much cruelty and suffering and darkness, and it can sometimes be hard to believe that a brighter future is indeed dawning. But for all our past failings, for all of our current problems, more people now enjoy lives of hope and opportunity than at any other time in human history.

This progress has been because of the concerted effort not of cynics, but of visionaries and optimists and idealists who dealt with our world as it was but never lost sight of the world as it should be.

Here in America, our own ideals of freedom and equality have been born through generations by optimists. There was a day in my own lifetime when the hope of liberty and justice for all seemed quite impossible. But because individuals kept faith with the ideal of equality, we see a different America today.

You're headed into a world where optimists are too often told to keep their ideals to themselves. Don't do it. Believe in the possibility of human progress, and act to advance it.

Now what do I mean by human progress?

I believe that all human beings share certain fundamental aspirations. They want protection for their lives and their liberties. They want to think freely and to worship as they wish. They want opportunities to educate their children, both boys and girls. And they want to be ruled by the consent of the governed, not by the coercion of the state. [applause] And, they want to be treated with respect, no matter who they are or how they look.

This challenges us to embrace and accept difference. All too often, difference has been used to divide and to dehumanize.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, the Birmingham of Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan and church bombings, a place that was once quite properly described as the most segregated big city in America. I know how it feels to hold aspirations when your neighbors think that you are incapable or uninterested in anything higher, and perhaps there are some members of this audience who have face that from time to time.

We have not and will not quickly erase the lasting impact of our birth defect of slavery, or the follow-on challenge of overcoming prejudices about one another.

But please remember this: We do not have a constitutional right not to be offended. [applause] We are Americans, and I believe that we are fundamentally decent people. And in every decent society, whether here or abroad, we should seek not to offend, but we will help our cause if we are also resolve to be slow in taking offense.

It is a great act of kindness to give someone else the benefit of the doubt. Try to react to others as you would hope they would react to you, no matter the color of their skin and no matter the color of yours.

And as we look from here out into the world where men and women seek the very basic liberties that we enjoy, let us remember that they are, indeed, different, but their desires for freedom are like ours.

In my professional life, I've listened with disbelief when people say that the men and women of Asia or Africa or Latin America or now the Middle East are not drawn to the dignity that liberty bestows. Maybe, some say, they're just not ready. They're too tribal, or too poor, or too religious.

Do not patronize them in this way.

It is your responsibility as educated people to help close the gaps of justice and opportunity, and yes, the gaps of freedom that still exist beyond our shores, just as you must do here at home.

At William & Mary, I know the mission of service is very close to the heart of this college, a recognized model for service learning. The ideal of service to others has inspired this class and those before to devote thousands of hours of your own time to help those in need.

Yes, your service has and will help them, but it is true that it helps you more. Because when you encounter those who are less fortunate, you cannot possibly give way to grievance. "Why do I not have ?" Or its twin brother, entitlement. "Why don't they give me ?"

In fact, you will ask, "Why have I been given so much?" And from that spirit, you will join the legions of optimists and idealists who are working toward a better human future.

What better place to draw on that spirit than here in colonial Williamsburg, where a college educated impatient patriots like Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, who then went forth to build a new nation based on equality and justice and rule of law.

Their political institutions did not always live up the grand aspirations expressed in their great documents. They, and their endeavors, were imperfect – as are all human beings. They stumbled. Sometimes they fell. But they kept going, and they left a legacy that allowed future generations – descendants of the free and descendants of slaves – to pick up the torch and walk toward the goal of making "we, the people" a more inclusive concept.

You now leave that very college, William & Mary, to join the ranks of the world's most privileged community – the community of the educated. It is a club that you may never quit and from which you can never be expelled. But remember that it does confer responsibilities.

So as you leave, I ask you to bear a few things in mind.

Be passionate about what you choose to do in life.

Use your powers of reason.

Cultivate humility.

Remain optimistic, and always try to serve others and the goals of freedom and justice.

Capture this moment forever in your mind's eye. The day when you and your parents and your family and your friends came to this place to celebrate a new beginning.

And affirm on this day, as you leave this place, you will always remember why you came.

May God speed you on your way today and for the rest of your lives. Thank you. [applause]

Speech from