2010 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"You can’t always control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction to your circumstances. In America, we achieve despite our circumstances."
Born in 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama, Condoleezza Rice is the only child of a Presbyterian pastor and a music, science, and oratory teacher. At the time of her birth, the family lived in a collection of five dark rooms at the back of her father's church. There was one bedroom, a living room, an office, one bathroom, and a kitchen. When Condoleezza was three, they moved to a separate parsonage the church had built. This small bungalow had two bedrooms and one bathroom. "Our neighborhood was called Titusville," says Condoleezza Rice. "I think it was mostly populated by teachers. It was a community that, despite segregation, was determined their children would have the best educational opportunities that could possibly be brought to them. I went to segregated schools, but I was fortunate to be in a family and community that valued education."
The segregation that permeated the South during Dr. Rice's childhood did have an effect, even though her parents tried their best to protect her from it. Restaurants, restrooms, water fountains, public transportation, and schools were all segregated. "You couldn't even eat a hamburger at Woolworth's," she says. "If our family was driving to New York, we had to go as far as Washington, D.C., before we could stay in a hotel. But somehow my parents convinced me that if I was twice as good at the things I attempted, then even if I couldn't have a hamburger at Woolworth's, I could be President of the United States. So despite the very negative messages all around me, this was very much the ethos in my little community."
Still, the reality of the situation was grim and often frightening. The Ku Klux Klan was active in Birmingham, and Condoleezza's father joined a neighborhood watch group that patrolled the area at night. In 1963, when Condoleezza was nine, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed. Four girls were killed in the explosion, one of whom was a friend and classmate of Dr. Rice. A year later, the Civil Rights Act was passed. Condoleezza's parents decided to go out and see what would happen if they entered a restaurant. She recalls, "When we entered the restaurant people sort of looked up, but then they went back to eating. Birmingham began its journey out of segregation and is today a fairly integrated city. It shows that America is a place that is capable of change."
Before Condoleezza started school, her grandmother took care of her while her parents worked. Her grandmother gave piano lessons and by the age of three, Condoleezza was asking to be taught how to play. She learned to read music before she could read words, but that soon followed as well. In fact, Condoleezza was so bright her mother attempted to have her start the first grade when she was only five. When the school deemed her too young, Condoleezza's mother took a year off from teaching and schooled her daughter at home. Finally, Condoleezza entered school in 1961, shortly before her seventh birthday, as a second grader. At the same time, her piano tutelage was intensifying. By the time she was nine, Condoleezza accompanied her mother, who played the organ at church. She also traveled to other churches to play at recitals.
Another influence on Condoleezza's childhood was the youth group her father directed at his church. Mr. Rice's intent with the group was to expose the children to a wider world-the arts and history, as well as religion. They went on field trips to concerts, museums, and college campuses. In the afternoons, the church was open for chess lessons, ballroom dancing, and other activities. Once a month, Mr. Rice even had a dentist come to check the children's teeth. "My parents were extraordinary people," says Dr. Rice. "I'm writing a book about my family and my parents. They really did believe I could do anything. They gave me every educational opportunity they possibly could."
In 1966, when Condoleezza was 12, her family moved to Tuscaloosa, where her father worked as dean of students at Stillman College. It was 50 miles from their Titusville home, and Condoleezza and her mother continued to return there once a week for her piano lessons at the music conservatory at Birmingham Southern College. Condoleezza was their first black student. Each summer, from the time Condoleezza was six, the Rice's went to Denver, where Mr. Rice was working on his master's in student personnel administration at the University of Denver. When he was offered the job of assistant director of admissions at the University of Denver, the family moved there permanently in 1968.
Condoleezza attended St. Mary's Academy, a private all-girls Catholic high school. As a girl, she had dreams of someday playing the piano at Carnegie Hall, but when she attended the Aspen Music Festival at the age of 15, she decided to change her aspirations. "I realized at the music festival that there were people there who were only 12 and a lot better than I was," she says. "It was a sort of crisis of confidence for me and I suddenly realized I had to find another direction."
But that change in direction took a few years to take shape. One development that caused great concern was her mother's breast cancer diagnosis when Condoleezza was 15. Her mother had surgery and the doctors told the family all would be well. Reassured, Condoleezza continued studying piano and won a young artist's competition, which allowed her to perform with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Since she had completed all the courses she needed to graduate by the fall of her senior year, she was allowed to begin part time at the University of Denver. Her schedule was challenging. She took three classes in the morning at the university, went to St. Mary's to practice piano for one hour, and then took classes there throughout the afternoon. Due to her father's position at the school, half of her tuition was covered. The other half was paid by a scholarship.
Dr. Rice did not declare a major at the university until her junior year. She took a course in international politics, which was taught by Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's father, Josef Korbel. Dr. Rice was particularly drawn to the stories her professor told about the Soviet Union. She decided then she would take Russian and study international politics. In 1974, at age 19, she earned her BA cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. The following year, she earned her master's in political science from the University of Notre Dame.
Dr. Rice interned at the State Department in 1977. In 1981, at age 26, she received her Ph.D. in political science from the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She became an assistant professor of political science and a specialist in the Soviet Union at Stanford University in 1987, a post she held until 1993.
After the election of George H.W. Bush to the White House, Dr. Rice was appointed to the National Security Council. She returned to Stanford in 1991, and within two years was appointed Stanford's Provost. She was also granted tenure and made a full professor. During George W. Bush's run for the presidency, she took a year off from Stanford to serve as his foreign policy advisor. After his election in 2000, she was named as National Security Advisor, the first woman to occupy the post.
From 2005 to 2009, she served as the 66th Secretary of State. Currently, she is a professor of political science and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Looking back over her impressive career, Dr. Rice says her life is explained in part by the American dream. "It doesn't matter where you come from," she explains, "it matters where you are going. In this country you can come from humble circumstances, and you can do great things. That's why so many people from around the world want to come here. This country is not united by creed or religion or nationality. The United States is a mélange and what unites us is that essential belief that you can come from humble circumstances, and you can do great things."
Dr. Rice does not believe that where she ended up, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State, was at all inevitable. She says, "I believe that my career success came from taking risks at important times combined with faith in myself to do unusual things. I never believed I had to take the safe way out. I never believed there had to be somebody who looked like me in place before I could take the same position. It's important not to limit yourself based on what others think you can or should be, or by the constraints of your own imagination."
In offering advice to young people, Dr. Rice says, "You can't always control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction to them. I think it's important to find a mentor who will take an interest in you and guide you. But it's even more important to believe in yourself. Even though the possibilities are endless in the United States, you have to work hard and seek out opportunities to be educated and mentored."
In accepting her Horatio Alger Award, Dr. Rice says, "I am deeply humbled to become a member of this organization. I think the award stands for what's best in American-that we achieve despite our circumstances."
Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice was named as National Security Advisor on December 17, 2000. She was the first woman to occupy the post. She became President George W. Bush's Secretary of State on January 26, 2005. As Secretary of State she championed the expansion of democratic governments. She also reformed and restructured the U.S. Department of State and U.S. diplomacy. Among her accomplishments, Secretary Rice reopened nuclear negotiations with North Korea and authorized bilateral talks. She also crafted the terms of a United Nations resolution to investigate war crimes in Sudan. She traveled widely in her position and initiated many diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Bush administration. Her close bond with the President made her one of the most powerful Secretaries of State in recent history.