On the second day of the spring semester at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, one of Jill Biden’s students approached her and said, “Can I ask you something personal?” Biden nodded. “Well, your name is Biden,” the student went on. “Are you connected, like, are you married to the vice president?” Her response: “He’s one of my relatives, and we’ll leave it at that.” And so they did, a sign of respect for the boundaries Biden, 59, has drawn around her personal life and the commitment she’s made to quality education. It is, she says, her “one sacred area”: three classes, two days a week—no cameras, no visitors. “First and foremost, I am their English teacher,” she says, “and I don’t ever discuss my role as second lady. They know that I could be doing other things, but I choose to be there in that classroom.”
That hasn’t always been her choice. In 1977 she married Joe Biden, then Delaware’s junior senator and a recent widower with two young sons. “They wanted a mom. And Joe wanted a family again,” she says. So she stayed home in Wilmington while he commuted daily to Washington, D.C. But soon Jill resumed her studies part time, getting a master’s degree while pregnant with her daughter, a second master’s while driving the kids to soccer games. She earned her doctorate as a grandmother, while teaching at Delaware Technical and Community College. Dr. Biden’s passion for what she calls “the smaller, more nurturing environment” of the nation’s nearly 1,200 two-year colleges has made her President Obama’s choice to help raise the profile of these schools, which she does by giving lectures and making public appearances. In addition, she is spearheading a mentoring project at Northern Virginia aimed at preventing female students from dropping out—women who are trying, as she once did, to resume their studies.
Why focus on women?
I went back to school after I was 30, and I know how hard it is. I was working full time, raising three children. I connect with these women. They’re really great students, and they take their college work seriously.
What is it about community colleges that so moves you?
It’s people who are struggling to get ahead. They work at minimum wage jobs; they’re trying to support families. I want to raise awareness that this is the perfect place for them to get job training or that it’s the gateway to a four-year college.
Your students are at varying stages of their lives. What special challenges do they face?
I had one woman in her forties who had problems with depression. She was raising her children, trying to come to school, and she would be missing a day, or her assignments would start to be late. And I would call her and say, “Come on, you’ve got to come back. You’ve got to do this for your kids. You’ve got to do this for yourself.” She came back. And I feel such a sense of accomplishment, knowing that I had a hand in that.
I think if they have someone who is saying, “You can do this; you can overcome these obstacles,” that’s what they need. They don’t have that in their life. You know, I come home, and I have a husband, and if I have a big speech to give, Joe says, “Jill, you can do this. You’ve done this before.” He’s constantly encouraging me. But these women don’t have someone to go home to, to say, “You know what? You’re doing a really great job, and I believe in you.” And I write that to them all the time. I write on their papers, “I believe in you.”
I notice that everyone calls you Dr. Biden.
Well, I feel like I earned the degree. I don’t really like Mrs. That sounds like Joe’s mom to me. It sounds too staid.
Have you ever resented putting your own career on hold?
No, and you know why? I came from a very typical middle-class background, my mom was a stay-at-home mom, and the one gift that my parents gave to me—they gave me security and safety. So that’s what I wanted to create for our children.