Jill Biden hosting community college summit at White House

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 8:53 AM

It's a unwritten rule that all modern first and second ladies have followed when they move to Washington: Give up your day job, and pick a platform. But second lady Jill Biden made up her own rule. She kept her career as a community college professor and made her job a key part of her administration platform.

Tuesday's White House Summit on Community Colleges represents a kind of coming-out event for Biden.

She will host the day-long event, designed to highlight the White House effort to boost the economy by increasing the number of people with college degrees. The administration wants to boost the number of community college graduates in the United States by 5 million by 2020, part of its goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates of any country in the world. At the summit, the White House will announce partnerships with corporations and nonprofit organizations that will invest millions of dollars in community colleges.

Last year, President Obama tapped Jill Biden to lead the administration's efforts to burnish the reputation of the country's community colleges - she has called the highly accessible, low-cost institutions "one of America's best kept secrets."

Biden boasts more degrees than probably anyone else in the Obama administration (four). But it is her ongoing work outside the administration - and the regular interaction with average citizens it entails - that makes her a rarity.

"She has been this amazing champion for education, and we have a fantastic working relationship," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has teamed with Biden on trips to college campus across the country.

"It would have been easy for her to move to Washington and stop working, but that never even occurred to her," Duncan said. "She obviously lives this; this is who she is. There are a million things she could be doing."

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Biden stands before a classroom of about 25 students at Northern Virginia Community College to teach developmental English and English as a Second Language. Many of her students, who call her "Dr. B.," were born outside the United States.

Biden started the job shortly after Obama's inauguration, after a dean reached out to her with a possible job offer. She had spent the previous 15 years teaching English at Delaware Technical & Community College, and has also worked as a reading specialist and English teacher in the Delaware's public schools.

Biden also has carved out a role in the administration, forming a partnership on military families with first lady Michelle Obama. They have made several joint appearances as Biden, whose son Beau was deployed in Iraq, has looked to expand her work with Delaware Boots on the Ground, and Obama has sought to learn more about the issues confronting military families. In August, Biden took her cause to the airwaves, appearing as herself in an episode of Lifetime's "Army Wives."

In an e-mail, Michelle Obama said she was "thrilled for Jill to host the Summit at the White House, and bring her dedication to community colleges and community education to the forefront."

Melody Barnes, who chairs the Domestic Policy Council, said Biden offers an insider's perspective on community colleges - not only does she remain in the classroom, she wrote her dissertation on student retention.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company