First Lady Jill Biden Highlights Role As First Professor in the White House

By Linda F. Hersey

February 8, 2021

Twenty-four hours before Joe Biden was inaugurated as president, First Lady Jill Biden was teaching her English composition class as usual at Northern Virginia Community College.

The First Lady’s decision to keep her day job as she settles into the White House is symbolic. She said that she likes her job as a college professor, worked hard for her PhD and is committed to teaching.

Having a first professor in the White House energizes calls or free college education, which is available in many European countries, including Norway, Sweden and Germany, which have apprenticeships as well.

Her commitment and advocacy raise the status of higher education in the Biden presidency. The First Lady is a long-time member of the National Education Association (NEA), which is the nation’s largest labor union and whose members advocated for the Biden presidency.

The First Lady supports making community college free for all U.S. students.  President Biden has pledged to do just that. He wants to make community colleges and historically black colleges and universities tuition-free for all students. The new president:

  • Pledged as a candidate to promote new policy and enact legislation allowing students to attend community college for up to two years tuition-free. Funds also could be used to pursue training and certification that link students to meaningful employment.
  • Endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ idea to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for all students whose family incomes are below $125,000 and forgive a portion of student debt for all borrowers.
  • Outlined a plan to invest $50 billion in high-quality training programs that would be administered through community colleges, in partnership with businesses, unions and other organizations.

Jill Biden as the ‘Conscience’ of the President

On Day One of the Biden presidency, the First Lady showed her support for strengthening education. The Washington Post reported that she met with the nominee for education secretary, welcomed the leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions at the White House, and hosted an online forum with 11,000 educators from around the country.  In the Post article, First Lady Jill Biden was described as her husband’s “conscience and confidante.

Higher Education, Training Emphasized

Higher education already is a priority for both the President and First Lady, who describe it as a necessity to stay competitive in the knowledge economy.

Jill Biden’s own background demonstrates that. At 69, she holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate awarded when she was 55 years old. Her doctorate in educational leadership was earned at the University of Delaware.

Her determination to continue as an educator sets her apart from all Frist Ladies who preceded her.

For the first time in 231 years, a First Lady has a career outside the White House. Of course, her dedication has required some logistics with security, such as Secret Service agents dressing as students with backpacks as they trail the First Lady through the halls of academia.

Jill Biden’s decision to continue working and having an independent career beyond the White House marks a shift from the traditional role of the First Lady.

Wives of U.S. presidents historically leave behind careers and professional identity to be the helpmate for the president. Michelle Obama is an attorney but ceased her job practicing law to take a high-profile role on many public health initiatives, including improving school lunch menus and planting a vegetable garden on the White House grounds, with the help of schoolchildren.

Jill Biden’s decision to keep her career is in line with millions of American families.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor reports that in close to 50 percent of married households, both spouses work. “Teaching is not what I do. It’s who I am,” she said prior to the election.

The First Lady says she uses the honorific “Dr.” because she “worked hard” for her advanced degree. She taught writing during the eight years her husband served as vice president. She does not consider working outside the home – even when it is the White House – a departure from the norm.

The First Lady is known for being down to earth and personable. She eschewed having a ballgown to attend post-inauguration celebrations. Her focus was on more practical issues. She likes to tell people to call her “Jill.”

Jill Biden married Sen. Joe Biden in 1977, becoming mother to his two sons, Beau and Hunter, four years after his first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, a schoolteacher, and the couple’s year-old daughter Naomi died in a car accident. Jill and Joe Biden’s daughter, Ashley, was born in 1981.

As First Lady, Jill Biden has prioritized education, cancer treatment resources and advocacy for military families. The issues have personal meaning and significance. In addition to being an educator, Jill Biden is a military mom. The Bidens’ son, Beau, the former attorney general of Delaware, died from brain cancer, in 2015.

Anita McBride, chief of staff for former First Lady Laura Bush, told the Washington Post that First Lady Jill Biden – after serving for eight years as the Second Lady during the Obama presidency — understands her high-profile role and how to advocate for issues that have personal significant for her family and millions of Americans.

“What this says to me is that [here] is someone who is so comfortable in this role,” McBride told The Washington Post. “It says, ‘I am thrilled and honored to have this position. These are the things I care about. I intend to be active. I intend to be visible and I intend to be a partner in the work of this administration.’  ”

Engagement Resources

Candidate Joe Biden’s Education Plan outlined his ideas for free college and training programs for all U.S. students.

White House Profile of Dr. Jill Biden articulates her interest in prioritizing higher education and supporting community colleges across America.

Washington Post reported on the First Lady’s commitment to teaching paired with her role as wife of President Biden.

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