First Professor: Community colleges find an advocate in Dr. Jill Biden
A Gallup poll conducted in September showed that 82% of registered voters rated education as “extremely important” or “very important” when deciding what to take into consideration when voting in the upcoming US presidential elections. During his victory speech, President-elect Joe Biden mentioned, “For American educators, it is a great day for y’all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House. And Jill is going to make a great First Lady.” A lifelong educator, a community college instructor of 17 years, the incoming First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden will become the nation’s first to continue teaching outside of her role at the White House.
“If we get to the White House, I’m gonna continue to teach,” Biden told CBS News’ Rita Braver in August 2020. “It’s important, and I want people to value teachers and know their contributions, and lift up the profession.”
Dr. Jill Biden will continue teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC). Dr. Jim McCellan, Dean of Liberal Arts at NVCC and Dr. Biden’s supervisor when she taught English composition on campus during the Obama administration explains that she was not treated any differently.
“She sits in a rustic cubicle just like the rest of us with minimal equipment and no ambiance. Sometimes Jill brings a change of clothes to the office and she will leave from the campus straight to a State Dinner. She is able to separate those two worlds”, he says.
Dr. Biden earned her Doctorate in Education from the University of Delaware in January of 2007, with a dissertation that focused on maximising student retention in community colleges. She also has two master’s degrees, both of which she earned while working and raising a family.
Her decision to continue workign during her tenure as First Lady, which is set to begin in January 2021, is historic. By doing so, Dr. Biden’s existing and future efforts will bring greater attention and advocacy to the sector, referring to community colleges as “one of America’s best-kept secrets.”
During her time at the White House as Second Lady, President Obama asked for her help in promoting community colleges, making sure they would not stay a secret. In this time, Dr. Jill Biden traveled the country visiting different campuses, giving job training and promoting completion programmes.
“The only reason she’s here is because her college president gave her permission to miss class,” Obama said a decade ago at a White House Summit on Community Colleges. “And this morning, between appearing on the Today Show, receiving briefings from her staff and hosting the summit, she was actually grading papers in her White House office.”
“Dr. B” as her students call her, is expected to make sure these institutions never become a secret again as First Lady. They are the least funded sector of education, according to Martha M. Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. Dr. Biden plans to keep pushing the initiative for free community college tuition, just as she did during and after the Obama administration, while also working on her initiatives to support military families and the fight against cancer.
According to the campaign, new plans include addressing food insecurities created by the pandemic, and unequal access to technology and broadband for students. She has assured union members that teachers will have a “seat at the table” at the Biden administration, and that President-elect Biden plans on appointing an education secretary who is an educator with public school experience, willing to fight for the right to organise and collectively bargain.
“It would be a real modernising of the first ladyship… to have the President’s spouse live the kind of life that the majority of women live, which is working outside the home professionally,” said Ohio University professor Katherine Jellison, who studies first ladies.
Public education advocates are hopeful that the Biden administration will bring renewed focus to traditional public schools, which are responsible for educating the vast majority of the nation’s students. While President Trump has slammed “failing government schools” and heavily promoted private schools as alternatives, President-elect Bident has promised better funding for public schools and stronger leadership as these schools plan to reopen amid COVID-19.
“It’s a very important signal to students in public higher education across the country that we have a President who attended a public university and a First Lady who dedicated her life to the community colleges and teaching,” says Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California’s 116 community colleges. “It sends a very clear and important signal that public higher education matters and community colleges matter tremendously to the country.”