An underappreciated ‘first’ in the Joe Biden presidency will be a First Lady who is a college professor. Higher education officials hope it augurs well for policies benefitting universities, college students and especially community colleges.
Dr. Jill Biden has indicated she plans to continue teaching English classes at Northern Virginia Community College after she and her husband move into the White House in January. She has been known to grade papers while flying on Air Force Two and after attending politically required cocktail receptions.
What I’ve seen at every community college along the way is the story of hope. Hope for workers, who have gone as far as they can go in their jobs … and are getting the skills they need to go to the next level. Hope for moms, juggling kids and a job, learning new skills for a new career.
“While it’s obviously too early to know how things will play out, campus leaders are understandably excited about having Dr. Biden in such a position, particularly since she has done so much to enhance understanding and appreciation of the colleges,” says David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges.
When Joe Biden was vice president, Jill Biden frequently visited community colleges throughout the country. “What I’ve seen at every community college along the way is the story of hope. Hope for workers, who have gone as far as they can go in their jobs … and are getting the skills they need to go to the next level. Hope for moms, juggling kids and a job, learning new skills for a new career. Hope for people in their 40s, 50s and even 60s, who have been out of work so long they’ve nearly given up – getting the second chance they deserve,” Biden said during a Broward College commencement ceremony in 2012.
Jill Biden has been a strong supporter of College Promise, which is intended to give “every hardworking student the chance to go to community college for free.” She also has been active in support of improving the education of children in military families.
Biden’s Cabinet picks so far have largely been Ivy League college graduates. Jill Biden’s exposure to community colleges and their students, who often work full-time while raising families, will leaven the President-elect’s mix of policy advice.
The President-elect often credits Jill Biden for sound advice and appears eager for her counsel on education. After his election, he shouted to his teacher-supporters, “You’ve got one of yours in the White House”. Mala Adiga, who has been director for higher education and military families at the Biden Foundation, will serve as the First Lady’s policy director.
In her memoir published last year, Biden recalled looking up to her grandmother who was a teacher. “When I visited her as a little girl she would take me to her school – an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse where she taught kids of multiple grades,” Biden wrote. “When she read to her kids, she was enchanting, and I saw how she pushed them to be their best. Many of her students were from poor homes, and every year, she’d collect coats to distribute, as well as knit gloves and scarves for those who needed them. I admired her generosity and the way she inspired her students. It was a lesson in teaching I’ve kept with me.”
During her career, Biden has taught in a psychiatric hospital and at two high schools. She says her deepest connection came when she taught at Delaware Technical and Community College. “I saw so much courage in my students. Some of them coming from families that had never dreamed they would have a child go to college. Some of them were older, having not been able to take a traditional path, having spent years working and saving and dreaming of the day they could get their degrees and make a better life for themselves.”
As a senator’s wife, Jill Biden attended night classes and took 15 years to earn her master’s degree as a reading specialist and English teacher. She earned her doctorate in education leadership from the University of Delaware when she was 55.
“You can see she has shared the experiences we’ve had,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers says. ”She’s been the instructor at the blackboard coaxing the answers out of our kids. She hears us. She feels us. She knows us.”
The First Lady’s English students may have some surprising online assignments as Jill Biden travels with President Biden. “If I were her and had the opportunity to go around the globe, I’d incorporate my experiences in my teaching,” suggested fellow educator Katherine Jellison. ‘Here I am at the Great Wall. Work on an essay about the pictures I’m sending and email them to me.’”
[This blog draws on a recent article appearing in Insider Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/11/24/what-will-jill-bidens-impact-be-higher-education#.X71TtTVDOSQ.twitter]