The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most people know her as Jill Biden. But to some she is Dr. B, the compassionate and challenging educator who went the extra mile.

Jill Biden, shown at a D.C. fundraiser in 2019, taught English at Northern Virginia Community College during her husband’s two terms as vice president. She plans to continue teaching while he is president. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Mikaela Stack knew her English professor as the “petite, blond lady” who “dressed up to the T.” The professor was a strict, but fair, grader. She assigned an essay every week and shared stories about her trips through Africa.

Stack had left Sweden in 2014 to pursue a degree in political science, and she had been living in D.C. for only a few months when she started taking English at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA.

One night, her roommates — two Capitol Hill staffers — turned on the TV to watch President Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union address.

“They show the balcony [and] Michelle Obama,” said Stack, now a stay-at-home mother. “And I thought, ‘Why . . . is my English professor sitting next to Michelle Obama?’ ”

Stack said she ran to find her English Composition 111 syllabus.

“My English teacher is the second lady of the United States!”

Jill Biden has largely avoided talking with students about her life in politics, dodging questions about her husband and, sometimes, referring vaguely to him as a relative, she told NPR in 2013. When students sign up for her class, it is listed as being taught by “staff,” rather than “Dr. Biden,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir, “Where the Light Enters.”

Biden had two major roles during her eight years as second lady. One was being the vice president’s wife, performed, for instance, on diplomatic trips abroad. The other was teaching English. And she’ll do it all again as first lady. When she returns to NOVA this spring, she will become the first woman in the position to continue her professional career.

Biden’s spokesman, Michael LaRosa, said that “out of respect for the privacy of her students and to preserve the integrity of her classroom,” she will continue to keep her teaching separate from her other role, as first lady, juggling the demands of two challenging jobs.

Biden’s former students recall a compassionate educator who emphasized her work with them to the point that many didn’t know — or forgot — that she was married to the vice president.

“She never really addressed the whole thing about being Jill Biden,” said Juliette Rosso, who had Biden as an English professor in 2017. “She was genuine, and she was humble.”

Stack said about Biden: “She cares deeply. She’s incredibly engaging and challenging and kind.”

'She won us over'

Before the soon-to-be first lady graded papers on Air Force Two, she spent 15 years as a professor at Delaware Technical Community College. Before that, she was a high school teacher.

In the 1980s, she taught English at the now-shuttered Claymont High School outside Wilmington as it was being integrated. Many of the students came from under-resourced schools. They “were behind on basic skills, and my job was to help them catch up with their peers in reading,” Biden wrote in “Where the Light Enters.”

Yolanda McCoy, now a Wilmington City Council member, found herself in Biden’s classroom in 1988. She was a transplant from Chester, Pa., whose mother had moved her to Delaware because she thought the schools there were better.

McCoy said she wasn’t particularly excited about school, at least not at first. Her attendance was spotty, she said, and English wasn’t exactly her favorite subject. But Biden was different from her other teachers, McCoy said. She was patient.

“She won us over,” McCoy said. “By the end of the year, we were engaging more.”

Biden applied the same approach at NOVA, former students said. She arrived at the now-14,000-student campus in Alexandria soon after her husband took office in 2009.

“As a lifelong educator, I couldn’t leave that behind,” Biden said when she delivered the commencement address for NOVA in 2016. “I couldn’t just move to Washington and only live Joe’s life.”

Jim McClellan, NOVA’s liberal arts dean, recalled to The Washington Post that Biden once asked if she could leave school 10 minutes early to go on a diplomatic trip through South America.

“I said, ‘Well, since the jet is revving up and using gas sitting on the runway, go ahead,’ ” McClellan said. Biden left with a stack of papers to grade and had them done when she returned from the trip.

In 2010, Biden attended a Winter Olympics skating competition three time zones away in Vancouver, B.C., said Brittany Spivey, a former NOVA student who introduced Biden as the school’s graduation speaker in 2016.

“Hours later, she was back in her classroom teaching,” Spivey told the audience.

'She didn't have to do that'

Biden — also known on campus as Dr. B — made it a point to understand her students beyond their writing styles, said Kaleel Weatherly, an associate editor at American City Business Journals who took Biden’s English class in 2012.

Weatherly said he told Biden that he wanted to be a sports reporter and that she was encouraging. “She made me feel confident in my writing,” he said.

Biden assigned books about humanitarianism and encouraged students to consider — and share — how they could make the world a better place.

Stack said that while settling into American life she caught bronchitis and coughed endlessly though her classes.

“I didn’t have insurance. I didn’t even know where to go to the doctor,” Stack said. “[Biden] was trying to help me and figure out how to get that care. She didn’t have to do that. No one else did it.”

And the compassion was returned. Biden, in her memoir, recounted the time her sister underwent a stem cell transplant. The professor told her class at NOVA that she would miss their next session so she could care for her sister.

“I quickly faced the whiteboard so the students wouldn’t see the tears filling my eyes,” Biden wrote. “When I turned back around, every single student was standing. They made a line and came up to hug me, one by one. At that moment, I knew just how much I needed them.”

More than 50 NOVA students, on a site for anonymous reviews of teachers, Rate My Professors, described Biden as a “respected” educator who “gives good feedback.” They also called her a tough grader who assigned a lot of homework, and they delivered an average rating of four out of five stars.

“Her approach helps students to become excellent writers and develop organizational skills,” one user wrote in May 2017. “Dr. Biden gives a lot of homework, but motivated and well-organized students can cope with homework easily.”

Some students disagreed.

“Very tough grader. Does not have a rubric at all,” one wrote in December 2018. “She grades everything based on her gut feeling. I worked so much, and nothing seemed to be good enough for her. I tried to communicate with her on how I could improve my grade, but she did not help much.”

Twenty-two people who said they took English with Biden at Delaware Tech gave her a slightly lower rating, 3.6 out of 5.

“I didn’t really like her at first, but I grew to respect her, and I realized that all she wanted to do was to help us,” one of Biden’s Delaware Tech students wrote in August 2008. “If you do the work you will pass her class.”

A role model

Biden took a special interest in the women on campus. She mentored mothers who had returned to school to get their degrees and, in 2009, helped launch a program at the NOVA women’s center to help female students stay enrolled.

Nazila Jamshidi, who left her home in Afghanistan to attend NOVA in 2016, said she worked with Biden in the women’s center. She noticed that other Afghan women were having trouble integrating and adapting to cultural differences at the school, and she pitched a solution to Biden and other women’s center leaders.

“Many of them would come to college to get their education, then stop pursuing,” said Jamshidi, who received an associate degree in liberal arts from NOVA and is working toward a master’s degree from Georgetown University.

Jamshidi wrote a proposal that outlined a plan to help immigrant women get acclimated to life in the U.S., and she asked Biden to review it.

“She would listen to you, and she would go through your proposal — part by part, piece by piece,” Jamshidi said. “And eventually, we would make it happen.”

Jamshidi’s proposal led to a women’s summit attended by more than 100 people and the creation of an Afghan American Student Council at NOVA.

Biden’s title, alone, made her a role model to female students, Jamshidi said. Then, that title was called into question when a Wall Street Journal op-ed article suggested that Biden drop the “Dr.” before her name.

The backlash to the op-ed was swift, and it prompted other women with doctorates to defend their titles and share their experiences with sexism. Former first lady Michelle Obama came to Biden’s defense in an Instagram post. Biden’s former students rallied around her, as well.

“I was so enraged by the whole thing,” said Rosso, who didn’t finish her degree at NOVA and is pursuing a career in nursing. “This is someone who is genuinely passionate about education.”

Biden said the controversy took her by surprise.

“It was really the tone of it,” she told CBS’s “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert. “You know, he called me ‘kiddo,’ and one of the things I’m most proud of is my doctorate. I mean, I worked so hard for it.”

Jamshidi called Biden an inspiration.

“As a person who believes that education is people’s universal human right . . . I truly found Dr. Biden really inspiring,” Jamshidi said. “At NOVA, you will find a student who has two jobs and then is pursuing a full-time education. Dr. Biden met those people and worked with those people.”

Community colleges, once considered second-class institutions, are the “backbone of America’s postsecondary education and training system” and “one of the keys to a more prosperous economic future,” Biden said in 2016. Those colleges educated one-third of undergraduate students during the 2018-2019 school year — more than 8 million students — according to the most recent federal education data.

Still, the needs of those students are overlooked, Biden has said. “They often need extra help and attention,” she wrote in her memoir.

Many community college students work two or three jobs. They come to school hungry. They have to choose between paying the utility bill or buying a textbook.

Biden’s classrooms at Delaware Tech were filled with recent high school graduates and students who had GEDs, and men and women who had lost their jobs to downsizing and students looking to learn new skills, she wrote in her doctoral dissertation at the University of Delaware.

Jill Biden, the next first lady, answers questions from D.C. area students. (Video: The Washington Post)

Most of the students were women, many with children, and almost every student received some sort of financial aid, she said.

Biden’s dissertation focused on her students’ needs, and she recommended that community colleges provide better academic counseling and mandatory skills courses to prepare students for college-level work. She has also been an advocate of free community college and told Colbert that she will continue to do so in the White House.

Rosso said it’s good to have an ally so close to the incoming administration.

“Being that she interacts with normal people on a regular basis — because she is a teacher — I think that gives her a connection with citizens, especially people in my age group, people that go to college,” Rosso said about Biden. “I have comfort knowing that someone of influence is still involved.”

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