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When women succeed, their communities succeed

March 01, 2019

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By Dr. Jill Biden

Mar 1, 2019

Note: On Wednesday, February 20, Dr. Jill Biden delivered remarks in the plenary session of the Achieving the Dream’s 2019 DREAM Conference in Long Beach, California. She spoke about the economic opportunity community colleges offer to students, and announced a new initiative supported by Achieving the Dream and the Biden Foundation. Her complete remarks, lightly edited, are below.


I teach writing at Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA. Some of my colleagues are here today. The culmination of each semester is a research paper. Last fall, I got a text from a student at around 6 o’clock in the morning on the day it was due. It read: “On my way to the hospital to have my baby; research paper will be late.”

To which I replied, “Excuses, excuses.”

Now this woman — my student — served as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. She’s starting a new life here in America for herself and her family. And in the midst of labor — one of the most exciting, scary, painful events a woman can go through — she was concerned about getting her paper in on time.

This same student approached me earlier in the semester and said: “Hey, Dr. B, can I talk to you about something? How do you do it all? How do you hold it all together?” This brave young woman from Afghanistan was asking me.

I’ve thought a lot about her question.

From left to right: Dr. Karen Stout, CEO of Achieving the Dream, Dr. Jill Biden, and Jenae Parker, DREAM Scholar alumnus.

For most of us, “having it all” really means “giving it all,” doesn’t it? We must figure out how to give ourselves to all the different people and demands in our lives. And that’s especially true for women who are trying to raise kids, hold down a job, get their education, and give back to their communities. There are many women like my student, working so hard, not to have it all, but to give it all.

For 15 years, Achieving the Dream has worked with community colleges to champion evidence-based strategies to improve student success. You’ve worked to help students, yours and mine, thrive in community colleges, and it’s an honor to continue this dialogue with you today at DREAM 2019.

I didn’t start my teaching career in community colleges, but they are where I realized that teaching isn’t just what I do, but who I am. I was working at Brandywine high school in Wilmington when a friend called me — a former colleague, who had left Brandywine to teach at Delaware Technical & Community College. She said, “Jill, you’ve got to come teach here. I promise you, you’ll love it.”

Our students are ambitious. They’re resourceful, independent people who ask for nothing more than the chance to work hard and build a better life for themselves and their families.

I wasn’t sure at first. I enjoyed teaching my high-school students. And, frankly, the thought of teaching adults was a little intimidating. Could I really make a difference in their lives? But, I knew for certain it would mean no more dreaded cafeteria duty, so I thought, well, why not? I should at least visit.

One thing I love about being a teacher is that there are so many opportunities to continue learning — professionally and personally. And I could see that Del Tech was going to be a chance for me to try something totally different. To keep growing. So, I met with the dean and accepted a job.

Working with older students was a new challenge. They come from different paths. They are veterans, refugees, and parents. Some are working towards that two-year degree that means the difference between minimum wage and a living wage. For some it’s a fresh start or a new career. Some are even older than I am!

Our students are ambitious. They’re resourceful, independent people who ask for nothing more than the chance to work hard and build a better life for themselves and their families. But over and over again, we see in our classrooms that they don’t always get the support they need or deserve.

More people are heading to community colleges — because, as we all know, they are an affordable, flexible, high-quality option. But graduation rates remain frustratingly low. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has shown that only a third of independent students complete a degree or certificate within six years.

And it’s worse for women. Nearly half of the five million students who are parents are single moms. They face challenges like child care issues, financial problems, caregiving, and food and housing insecurity. Often, they have to drop out. They don’t graduate.

When that happens, they lose so much more than just a degree. They miss opportunities to get better jobs, to progress in their careers, and to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars as the years go on. We have to do better. And we can.

I wrote my dissertation on mentoring and, all these years later, I still believe it is a critical piece of community college success.

When I was hired at NOVA in 2009, I had the chance to start a mentoring program for women over 30 who were returning to school. But younger women started saying to me, “You know, Dr. B, I need help too.” So we decided to open it up to all ages.

Now, mentoring is just one component of making sure that women have the support they need to graduate and get good jobs. Today, at NOVA, we have more than 120 women enrolled in the program and more than 50 faculty mentors. Our sisterhood is powerful. In our sessions, women share their sorrows and their anxieties. We celebrate their victories. We build friendships. I’ve watched so many women transform from struggling students to confident, accomplished college graduates.

One of the best ways we can strengthen families and neighborhoods is by investing in women. Because when women succeed, their children and families succeed.

In 2014, NOVA compared participants of our “Women Helping Women” group to a control group and found that our students had higher rates of retention, higher GPAs, and a significantly higher graduation rate — by 8.2 percentage points, in fact.

At its heart, education isn’t just about lectures and lesson plans. It’s about helping people become the best versions of themselves. It ignites our potential — gives us the confidence we need to believe in ourselves.

But if women are struggling to pay their bills, to find childcare or transportation — if they don’t have the mental and emotional support they need, that door of opportunity may stay locked.

One of the best ways we can strengthen families and neighborhoods is by investing in women. Because when women succeed, their children and families succeed.

A few years ago, one of the women in my class was having a hard time in her studies, and in our meetings, she revealed to us that she was a survivor of domestic violence. She had fled from her husband with her children. For a while, she had lived in her car and then a shelter. And although their lives were more stable at that point, she was still struggling with the mental and emotional aftermath.

So our group embraced her. We gave her a place to talk about her experience, we supported her through counseling, and I had the chance to work with her on her writing. And in time, not only was she able to graduate, but she wrote an incredible personal essay and was accepted into George Mason University. Today, she’s working as an accountant — and her whole family has a brighter future.

We’re here today for people like her.

And that’s why I am so excited to announce Community College Women Succeed, a new initiative supported by Achieving the Dream and the Biden Foundation.

This initiative, working with thought leaders like you from across the country, will promote promising practices and innovative programs to support women’s retention in community colleges, based on research and retention trends.

But this isn’t top-down. We will listen to women who know what they need more than anyone. We’re hosting regional roundtables with students and working with advocates across the nation to figure out how to create the best, most effective support system we can.

This isn’t easy. There isn’t one single thing that is going to reverse those numbers I read earlier. There isn’t one thing that’s going to suddenly make balancing work, and childcare, and education, and pursuing your career simple.

But for the women who are willing to give their all, who are willing to fight for the futures they want and deserve, we can do more.

As educators, we think that our schools and our students are the exception. So this may not surprise you, but I think community colleges are a special place. I think community college educators are special people. And I think that no oneis better prepared to meet this challenge than we are.

You all know how important this is. You see it in the faces of the women we work with every day. You see it when your students struggle. And, you see it when they succeed — when they overcome obstacle after obstacle to stand triumphantly on that graduation stage.

Together we can find ways to clear that road. We all have a role to play. We all have gifts to give to this effort. And even though it’s tough, I have faith in us — I know that we will change things for the better.

I know we will find a way to help women be students and mothers. We will find a way to help them succeed at school and pay their bills. We will help them pursue the opportunities they want and deserve.

Because difficult tasks? Balancing impossible choices? Blazing new trails? We — all of you here — this community college family knows how to get this done.

So let’s say to our students: We’ve got your back.