Remarks of Dr. Jill Biden at Northern Virginia Community College Commencement Ceremony as Prepared for Delivery
Jiffy Lube Live
This is a special night for me. This will be my final commencement address as Second Lady, and what an honor to do it at the college that means the most to me. Thank you to President Ralls and the Board of Trustees.
Congratulations, graduates, you did it! On behalf of President Obama, the First Lady and the Vice President, my husband Joe — we are all so proud of you. Graduating from college is an extraordinary achievement. Cherish this moment. Yes, it’s an individual accomplishment. But, it’s also a team effort. So, let’s thank your teachers, your friends and your families.
You never know where life will take you. I grew up in Philly. After I married Joe, I lived in Delaware for most of my life. I raised our children and taught full-time at another community college. Then, in 2008, Joe was asked to be President Obama’s running mate. And when we won, everything changed.
I started receiving emails from someone at NOVA. He would write, “Jill, you have to keep teaching. Please consider us. We know you would love it here!” Well, Dean Jimmy McClellan, thank you for all those emails. Thank you for your encouragement, and for all of your support during the last 8 years. Truly, I wouldn’t be here tonight without you.
When I took Jimmy up on his offer to visit the Alexandria campus, I immediately fell in love. It felt like home. Joe and I had just moved into the Vice President’s Residence at the Naval Observatory in DC. And I was given a new office in the White House. It has marble floors and columns, a fireplace, and large windows that over-look the National Mall.
Then of course, I have my cubicle at NOVA. But, like all the other teachers, my cubicle is filled with family photos, crayon drawings from my grandchildren, notes from my students. It’s a place that feels most like me.
It’s been an honor to serve our country but I knew at the time that if I wanted to stay true to myself, I had to keep teaching. Because teaching is not just what I do; it’s who I am.
All of the teachers here today understand that. We take this responsibility home with us every single night. Teaching doesn’t end when you walk out of the classroom. We’re invested in you — our students and your future. We cajole. We counsel. We mentor. We do whatever it takes to make that connection with our students; to give them the confidence they need to succeed in school and beyond.
As a lifelong educator, I couldn’t leave that behind. I couldn’t just move to Washington and only live Joe’s life. So, ever since then, I’ve pretty much been living a double life.
One moment, I’m taping a live interview at 7:15 AM in the Blue Room at the White House for the TODAY Show talking about President Obama’s State of the Union address and his continued support of community colleges. And then the next moment, at 8:00 AM, I’m in class at NOVA teaching English Comp 111.
Many of my students don’t know I have two jobs. For example, at the end of one semester, about a year ago, a student of mine came running into my classroom and said, “Dr. B I saw you on the television last night with First Lady Michelle Obama.” My student said to her mother, “Mom! Mom! That’s my English teacher!” And her mother said, “That’s not your teacher, that’s the Second Lady.” They may not know that I’m married to the Vice President, but my students know that my first priority is to them.
And I’ve loved being part of this Administration. I’ve tried to use my position to make a difference for military families, for women and girls around the world, and for teachers and community colleges and their students.
As a community college educator, I feel like I was in the right place at the right. The Obama-Biden administration has lifted up community colleges, recognizes their value and the importance of investing in them. It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s been an incredible journey.
But when I’m at NOVA, I’m home. I’m one of you. A member of the faculty. Your English teacher. I’m part of the NOVA community. And I’ve learned as much from my students — from all of you — as I have from traveling around the world. So, you’re probably thinking, as Second Lady she’s met famous people like the Queen, stayed in exotic palaces and dined with world leaders.
But every step of the way, I’ve been inspired by the strength and courage of ordinary people across our country doing extraordinary things — just like you, the students at NOVA. What you are doing is emblematic of America’s very best traditions — hard work, self-improvement, asking for only one thing: opportunity.
Just as America has progressed over the years, so too has NOVA. This is NOVA’s 50th anniversary. The first class to graduate from NOVA had 82 students. Ten were women. And they received degrees in eight different fields. Tonight, over 7,600 students will receive their college diploma. Fifty five percent are women. You have earned degrees in 60 fields of study. And half of you will transfer to a four-year college within a year.
When I started teaching 30 years ago, community college students were typically seen as “non-traditional.” But today, with more than half of our nation’s college students attending community colleges, with so many of you working full time, supporting families, and still attending school, non-traditional has become the new traditional.
You are single parents who come to school in the evening, weary from a long day, yet eager to create a brighter future for your children. You are workers, who have gone as far as you can in your jobs, coming back to school to get the skills you need to reach the next level. And, several of tonight’s graduates are veterans.
As a military mom, I am always inspired by the strength, resilience and pride of our veterans. I know you have the skills, discipline and leadership to succeed in anything you put your mind to. You are among the best our nation has to offer. Thank you, to all of the veteran graduates here tonight, for your service to our country.
Now, most commencement speakers give graduates advice on what to expect when they graduate and enter the real world. But most of you already live in the real world. The average age of a community college student is 28 years old. And one of my students was 83. Regardless of circumstances, you show up. You work hard. And, I am profoundly moved by your determination to learn, and by your quest to make a better life for yourselves.
So, as I was thinking about what to say to all of you tonight, rather than give you advice on how to succeed in life, I gave myself an assignment. Every semester in my class, I assign an essay to my students using the title, “This I Believe.” I first heard about it on National Public Radio. I ask them to tell me their core beliefs. Something they would be willing to stand up for; to speak for; to fight for.
Tonight, I’d like to share with you my own essay about what I believe.
This I believe: I have long said that community colleges are America’s best kept secret, but I believe it’s time for that to change. I believe we need to celebrate community colleges — and their students — for who they really are: innovative, inspiring and essential. Not just celebrate, but support.
But this, too, I believe: Too many hardworking Americans still have to worry about whether college is affordable. For millions of people across the country, community college is the single best path to opportunity — to achieving their dreams — whether that means earning a four-year degree or finding a rewarding career.
This I believe: The more than 1,100 community colleges nationwide are not just the key to a brighter future for their students, they are the backbone of America’s postsecondary education and training system — and one of the keys to a more prosperous economic future. That’s why I also believe — as does President Obama — that community college should be free for all responsible students.
This I believe: With the education that you have received here at NOVA, there is literally no limit to how high you can go. Community college graduates have gone on to become successful CEO’s, journalists, Hollywood directors, even astronauts.
Finally, this I believe: a community college education can truly change people’s lives. And community college graduates — including every single one of you — can change the world.
I believe in you. Always believe in yourselves.