Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a lasting mark on a special group of high school seniors when she shared seven helpful tips on how to take full advantage of their college careers. Dr. Rice took the podium at the annual Coca-Cola Scholars banquet to share these powerful life lessons and valuable tips upon entering college to the 2014 class—a group of 150 graduating high school seniors selected as young leaders to shape a better future for people and the planet we share.

“You are about to enter the ranks of the educated people and there are special responsibilities that come with education and its transformative power,” said Dr. Rice as she challenged each scholar to take responsibility in shaping the future of democracy throughout the world.  

“[The Scholars Program] accepts responsibility for making certain that the next generation will have within it, educated people who come from all walks of life and all circumstances, who understand it really doesn’t matter where you came from… it matters where you’re going,” she explained in her keynote message.

A Taste of Humble Pie

It’s a personal message stemming from Dr. Rice’s humble upbringing. Growing up in Birmingham AL, she never imagined one day becoming the U.S. National Security Adviser, much less the 66th Secretary of State and the first African-American woman to hold that position. 

Her grandfather, John Wesley Rice, Sr., instilled this sense of humbleness – as well as a passion for learning – in her family. A sharecropper’s son, he was determined to enroll in Stillman College in Alabama, paying his first year’s tuition with cotton he had harvested. He eventually accepted a scholarship to become a Presbyterian minister, even though it wasn’t part of his original plan.

“He knew that education would transform him into something he wouldn’t otherwise have ever been,” Dr. Rice said. “And that scholars, is what you are about to experience—that transformative power of education,” she added as she addressed more than 900 attendees at the Coca-Cola Scholars banquet on Thursday, April 3, 2014.

Founded in 1986 to mark the centennial anniversary of Coca-Cola, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation has since awarded more than 5,400 scholarships valued at more than $54 million. And this year the program introduced a twist in the Scholar selection process. For the first time, interviews were conducted regionally and were led completely by Coca-Cola Scholar alums. 150 $20,000 scholarships were awarded to remarkable young people from 43 states.

Follow Your Passions

“As you approach your education, approach it as a way to find your passion,” advised Dr. Rice. Instead of focusing on what college major to pick or what job will come in the future, the Stanford University professor encouraged scholars to find what makes them get up every day and go do that.

“And if you don’t find your passion, it might just find you,” she said speaking from experience.

Reading music before she could read words, Dr. Rice always dreamed of becoming a concert pianist and playing Carnegie Hall before a reality check during her sophomore year of college made her reconsider. Her dreams came to a halt when she met 12-year-olds playing at the same level of difficulty as her.

“I thought, I’m about to end up teaching 12-year-olds to murder Beethoven or maybe I’m going to play in a piano bar, but I am not going to play at Carnegie Hall.”

Not everyone enters college with a career path set in stone. And that’s okay, assures Dr. Rice.  She changed her major three times before her passion for International Politics found her. As a junior in college she could finally tell her parents the good news, “Mom, dad I found it! I want to be a Soviet Specialist.” It was a far cry from where she originally saw herself, but for Dr. Rice everything came full circle.

While working as National Security Advisor, she received an unexpected phone call from Yo Yo Ma, the greatest living cellist. He was inviting her to play with him.  She gladly accepted. Together they played in front of 2,500 people in Constitution Hall. She says she wasn’t confused why he called. Dr. Rice knew she wasn’t playing with Yo Yo Ma because she was the greatest pianist. She was playing with him because she was the National Security Advisor who could play piano.

“Sometimes your passions come back together, and that’s a very nice thing,” says Dr. Rice.

The World as It Should Be

Follow your passion is one of the seven key tips Dr. Rice presented to the 26th class of Coca-Cola Scholars to ensure a successful college career. Among the others, “try something hard” and “learn another language”.

As a college professor, Dr. Rice witnesses the transformative journey students take in pursuing an education and the special responsibility that comes with it every day.  Drawing from her experiences, Dr. Rice concluded her inspiring message with a challenge for the Coca-Cola Scholars.

“Take this time to make the most of this journey and then take what you have learned and return it to make us all a stronger, collective, democratic society dedicated to each other and determined that the world will be not as it is but as it should be.”