In the mid-1990s, if you asked a Cuban child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would invariably answer, “a foreigner.”
It seemed to him that you had to be a foreigner to be able to buy things and have a good life.
“The answer was both simple and profound,” says Steve Rice, a foreign service officer at the U.S. Department of State and a University of Wyoming alumnus.
Rice himself knew from an early age that he wanted to experience the wider world. He grew up in Cheyenne, and on a family trip to Manhattan, he ate at a Chinese restaurant. “One of those rules was that you had to have milk for dinner,” he says, “and they did not have milk.” This was an eye-opening experience for a 5-year-old.
“In New York, I was exposed to an international cosmopolitan world that I had never seen,” he says. “From a very early time, I became interested in the presidents, in government and also the international because I realized that there was a whole world out there.”
When Rice was a senior in high school, he was selected as one of two students to represent Wyoming in the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s United States Senate Youth Program, where he shook President Ronald Reagan’s hand on the White House lawn. Then-junior Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson took the boys on a tour of the capital and sat with them at lunch.
Before Rice left, his dad told him to tell Simpson that his great grandmother was Maisie Kern Rice, who had been the Simpson family babysitter. “Oh, dad!” was his response.
The senator, though, had realized prior to the visit whom Steve’s grandmother was and wrote her name on a piece of paper.
“Do you know why I did that?” Simpson asked.
“No,” Rice said.
“Because my dad, the former governor of Wyoming, is in his 90s now, and so I call him every single day. When I call him today, I’m going to tell him I met Maisie K. Rice’s great grandson at the Senate Youth Program,” Simpson replied.
To this day, when the Senate Youth Program is in town and he is not on foreign assignment, Rice mentors students in the Wyoming delegation. At the program’s 49th anniversary celebration last year, Rice was honored with a public service award from the group’s alumni association.
Later, Rice attended UW on a Presidential Scholarship, majored in economics and French and won the best senior award in economics. He also spent his junior year in France, which was his first true international experience.
“Wyoming’s always done a great job of funding education and valuing it,” says Rice. “That’s really contributed to my success in life, and I remain very much grateful to the people of Wyoming and their contribution. I hope I’ve tried to pay that back to the state and to the country with my service over the years.”
Following graduation from UW, Rice went on to earn his master’s degree in comparative politics at Northwestern University before attempting to pass the Foreign Service exam, an especially demanding test on geography, English usage, history, math, economics, culture and more.
After he did not pass the written exam on his first try, Rice capped his education by attending the Thunderbird School of Global Management, which specializes in graduate education in international studies, foreign language and business.
By then, friends were asking him, “Why don’t you take the Foreign Service exam?” He hesitated. He had failed once, and the chances of being hired—even if he did pass on his second try—were slim. “It’s free,” they said. “You should.” He did, and, this time, he succeeded.
Rice began work at the U.S. State Department in 1995 and soon accepted his first foreign assignment in Cuba, a country he figured would be interesting because it was the one of the last places in the world to still uphold communism.
There was no official diplomatic mission to Cuba, so the American delegation, though the largest on the island, served under the auspices of the Swiss embassy. Rice worked on visa issues, but when Cuba expelled the United States’ human rights officer, he was quickly promoted to this senior position, where he served for nine months. In all, Rice served two years in Cuba.
“One of the things I learned from that assignment is that what people think about the United States as a country may be different from what people think about Americans,” Rice recalls.
Following his time in Cuba, Rice served in Syria, where he met his future wife, Rita, a native of Damascus who was working in the Canadian Embassy. They now have three girls.
Later, Rice moved on to Israeli-Palestinian affairs in Washington, D.C., followed by overseas assignments in Algeria and Qatar.
While in D.C., Rice also served in the State Department’s Operations Center under Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. Back in Washington for a second time, Rice is now deputy director of defense trade controls policy, a position which has jurisdiction over exports of items on the U.S. munitions list.
Rice speaks four languages. He’s most proficient English and French and does pretty well in Spanish. He learned some Arabic courtesy of the State Department, but it’s a tough language to master because it’s not within the same family of languages and English, French and Spanish.
“Arabs have an expression in Arabic: ‘Learning a foreign language is like getting another soul,’” he says. “What they mean by that is it gives you an entirely new way of looking at the world around you and experiencing it.”
His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. When you speak the native language in a foreign country, Rice explains, people appreciate it: “I have blond hair and when I talk to someone in Arabic or in Spanish, they’re just amazed. Even if you can only say a few phrases. I know this is especially true of Arabs—if you make an effort to try to speak Arabic to someone who’s Arab, they’re very touched by that.”
Understanding and relating to people is important, Rice says. Not everything in Washington is about power, he says. It’s also about people, and if you know people and approach them in the right way, you’d be surprised how well you can reach them. It’s the same way overseas.
“You have to understand that person’s culture, that person’s government and what it is that that person needs to do in his or her own system,” says Rice. “I can say to you, ‘You need to do this because the United States wants you to do that.’ Well, that may work in some circumstances but most of the time people do things because it’s in their own best interest to do it, and you have to try to find those talking points, if you will, that help people to recognize that on their own. Sometimes you luck out and find the right magic button.”
People from different parts of the country and the world tend to excel at and focus on certain things, Rice says. For example, Northeasterners and Europeans often focus on what you do and how to get things done. Other parts of the world are much more concerned about who you are, where you are from, and who your family is. People from the American South are also this way, so they often understand this approach.
People from the West tend to pragmatic, and that skill will often bridge the gap between those who focus on who you are and those who focus on what you do. Rice’s Wyoming upbringing has served him well.
Friendliness is another Wyoming asset. Rice says that people the world over, when they find out he’s from Wyoming, will say, “Oh, I’ve been Wyoming. I’ve been to Yellowstone.” They talk about how friendly the people are and how they reach out to foreigners. “That kind of exposure actually does more for you than a lot of media campaigns,” Rice says. “You’d be surprised—one person who’s actually been to a place can persuade or dissuade friends much better than any advertising campaign.”
Today, Rice’s job involves balancing how interconnected the world is with the security of American citizens.
“I think the American way of life is a great life,” Rice says. “People from around the world line up at visa windows to have a chance to live in the United States. On the one hand, we need to be grateful [that] so many other people want to come here. On the other hand, we have to recognize that because there are all those people outside of the country, in this global age we live in, something that happens somewhere else affects us in more ways than we can imagine.”
It’s something he wrestles with every day, and he sees American practicality and commonsense solutions as the answer.
“I have kids and I want to give them a better world than we have,” he says. “To the extent that we don’t take responsibility for looking out for their interests in the future and duck hard questions and hard issues, we’re not doing the right thing.”
Tamara Linse is editor of the UW Foundation.