Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told members of Southern Utah University’s Class of 2022 that if they should question the freedoms Americans enjoy, they should find inspiration in the Ukrainian people’s “fierce defense of their rights” in their ongoing fight against Russian invaders.

“If you find yourself at any moment sour for even one moment on the power and the blessings of the rights that we enjoy, the right to say what we think, to worship as we please, to be free of the knock of the secret police at night, and the arbitrary power of the state, and to have the right to choose those who would govern us, just watch the news these days just for a moment and find inspiration from peoples who are willing to die for the rights that we have,” said Rice, featured speaker for the university’s 123rd annual commencement ceremony Friday.

It demonstrates “that there is nothing like the blessing of liberty. Look to their example, as an affirmation of freedom and its power,” said Rice, who is considered an expert on the Soviet Union.

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Even in troubled times, Rice urged SUU’s 2,309 graduates to have faith that the future will be better than the present.

“Idealists, not cynics, are the ones who have imagined the world not as it is but as it should be and then work to make it so. Never forget the sacrifices of those who are willing to give all in the defense of freedom. Embrace the institutions that protect liberty, revere them and use them for peaceful change,” said Rice.

Rice served as the 66th U.S. secretary of state from 2005 to 2009 and was the second woman and first Black woman to hold the post.

A professor of political science, Rice has been on the Stanford University faculty since 1981, and served as its provost from 1993 to 1999.

From 1989 to 1991, Rice served on President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff. In 1986, while an International Affairs Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, Rice also served as special assistant to the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

Some day, members of SUU’s graduating class may have opportunities for public service, too, she said, during her address in SUU’s America First Event Center in Cedar City.

“You might even end up in a position that you could never have imagined,” said Rice, reflecting on the White House ceremony when she was sworn in as secretary of state.

“As I stood there in the Ben Franklin Room in 2005, being sworn in as secretary of state, an oath to a Constitution that once counted my ancestors as three-fifths of a man, sworn in by a Jewish woman Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I did think to myself, ‘What would old Ben have thought of this?’”

“Well, he would never have imagined it, of course, and frankly, neither would I as a little girl growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. I would tell you that I don’t think Ruth either would have imagined it as she was just trying to have her voice heard in law school. So, there are incredible possibilities out there for you in public service.”

Rice told the graduating class to be mindful of those who have not had the privilege of attending college.

“Remember that there are those who were just as capable, just as smart, who never got this chance. For whatever reason. it just didn’t work out for them. So this is a time to celebrate achievement but a time to set aside any sense of entitlement. For those of us who are privileged enough to have it, we must use it well, and share it, whenever we can,” she said.

That is the responsibility of an educated person, she said.

“I want to challenge you to be active in the world around you, drawing on your education to make that world better. There is no better antidote to entitlement than to engage with those who have less than you do, who for whatever reason, are living troubled and difficult lives,” she said.

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Rice said her family’s history of obtaining higher education dates back to her sharecropper grandfather from Eutaw, Alabama (pronounced Utah). “I’m not kidding,” said Rice.

Her grandfather, John Wesley Rice Sr., died two months before she was born, “but somehow I feel that he’s always been there through my journeys. You see, he was an educated person who persevered and did whatever it took to get that one thing that no one would ever take from him.”

He paid for his first term at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with cotton.

“After his first year, the school said to him, ‘So how are you going to pay for your second year?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m out of cotton.’ They said, ‘Well then, you’re out of luck.’”

But the quick-thinking young man inquired how his fellow classmates could afford college.

“They said, ‘Well, they have what’s called a scholarship, and if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, you could have a scholarship, too.’ My granddaddy did not miss a beat. He said, ‘You know, that’s exactly what I had in mind.’

“And my family has been college educated and Presbyterian ever since,” Rice said.

On Friday, Rice added another doctorate degree — albeit honorary — to her vitae.

She and Eric O. Leavitt, executive chairman and chief executive officer of the Leavitt Group, the largest family-controlled insurance brokerage in the nation, and a former chairman of SUU’s board of trustees, were awarded honorary doctorate degrees by the university.