2021 Distinguished Alumna earned France's most prestigious award

Candice Burgess Nancel ‘78 didn’t know what opportunity awaited her when she began work for the United States Embassy in Paris more than two decades ago. She knew only that the first step to success in any career is to get a foot in the door.

So she walked into a centuries-old Parisian townhouse — home to stunning works by French artisans and host to diplomatic meetings and receptions — and she made a name for herself.

What started as a job coordinating official Embassy events at the George C. Marshall Center in the Hôtel de Talleyrand eventually led to the honor of a lifetime in 2010 when Candice received the Legion of Honor Medal, France’s most prestigious award.

In a career dedicated to humanitarian and cultural causes, Candice has met presidents, diplomats, philanthropists, and celebrities. She has devoted her life to preserving French history and promoting strong Franco-American relations. She has raised millions of dollars in support of historic restoration and preservation. 

And, in her 32 years working at the U.S. Embassy in France, she has embraced life as the global citizen all Harpeth Hall girls strive to become.

On Tuesday, Harpeth Hall honored Candice as the school’s 2021 Distinguished Alumna. Candice came to campus all the way from Paris to speak to students about a career that put her on the path to receive one of the most famous recognitions in the world.

“It just seems like yesterday when I was sitting right there,” Candice told the students. “It all goes so fast.”

Candice doesn’t feel like she stood out at Harpeth Hall. A self-described average student, Candice managed “with a lot of acceptance and encouragement from my classmates and the Harpeth Hall teachers, which is a testimony to the great place Harpeth Hall is.” 

The support set her up for the great journey ahead — and a Winterim trip to France her senior year determined the direction.

Early in her professional life, she worked for the Paris Chamber of Commerce, the Centre National de Innovation et Technology, and Un Enfant par la Main, a French nonprofit associated with the Christian Children’s Fund. Then she entered the Hôtel de Talleyrand and she built a legacy leading an extensive restoration project. It just took the confidence to make the first step.

“If you want to have a career,” she told Harpeth Hall’s students, “make sure you get your foot in the door and work your fanny off.”

The Legion of Honor given to Candice was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. For two centuries it has been presented on behalf of the Head of State to reward esteemed service to the nation. The first American female to receive the French award was the Titanic’s “Unsinkable” Molly Brown. She was followed by acclaimed women of politics, literature, and art, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child, and Toni Morrison. All women of influence. As is Candice.

Guided by eight principal influences in her life — her mom and dad, education, friends, faith, culture, opportunity, and adversity — Candice said she continues to grow. As she closed her time at Harpeth Hall on Tuesday, she challenged Harpeth Hall’s students to consider their own motivations and inspirations and how that might shape the people they become. 

“Will you influence society in the 21st century,” she asked, “or will it influence you?”

Watch the Distinguished Alumnae assembly

Read a profile on Candice Burgess Nancel from Hallways