By Mary Ellen Flannery
On Wednesday, Jill Biden made an online visit to the kind of place where she’s most comfortable: a community college classroom.
Biden, an NEA member who has taught in community colleges since 1993, most recently as a full-time professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, made the second stop of her “Back To School” tour at Pasco-Hernando State College near Tampa, Fla., in an “Introduction to Public Speaking” class taught by United Faculty of Florida leader Davina Jones.
“It’s a bit intimidating to speak to students who are studying public speaking! I hope I’m not getting graded,” Biden joked.
Biden told Jones how much she typically loves the start of the semester—“the quiet before the students shuffle in, the murmur of ideas as we explore the world together, the laughter…” But, she noted, “this year, those feelings of excitement have really turned into anxiety, and some classrooms are dark as the bright faces that should fill them are confined to boxes on a computer screen.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended education at all levels, from pre-K to graduate school. But at community colleges, where students often may be parents and full-time workers, the challenges are compounded: Many students have lost income, or are struggling to manage their own children’s remote education. Jones noted that some of her students have lost family members to the pandemic, and others are struggling with homelessness. Many are busily engaged in current Black Lives Matter protests and other social justice movements.
“Community college students are some of the hardest working people around. It’s not always easy. But you show up when it counts. You put in the hours. And you support one another. In you, I see the best of the nation,” Biden told students. This nation needs “leadership worthy of all of you,” she said.
“My husband Joe will support you. He knows schools need funds to pay for protective gear…he knows you need access to technology and broadband if we must continue with remote learning,” she said. “Joe knows the best policies don’t come from politics, they come from educators and students like you. I promise you that Joe is going to listen.”
And yet, with all that’s going on in the world—the pandemic, the economy, the social unrest—Jones said she’s concerned some students may be discouraged or distracted from the election. What do you say to those students? Jones asked Biden.
“All of you students on the screen [in front of me]—your future depends on this,” answered Biden. “I know every election all the candidates say this is the most important election of your lifetimes. Those words probably ring hollow and I get that…but we’re living with the consequences of the 2016 election every day. Think of your lives right now. We’re living with an out-of-control pandemic. It didn’t have to be this way. An unstable economy—it didn’t have to be this way. Racism that continues to hurt our communities. We have a president who says it doesn’t even exist…
“We are living in the chaos of Donald Trump’s America. If you want change in your life, if you want this pandemic to go away so that you can go back to school and back to work, and have good health, you have to vote. It’s crucial. It’s crucial.”