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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 January 13 - 12:00 am

Friends In High Places

The Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus of Montgomery College is located a mere 6 ½ miles from the Naval Observatory in Northwest Washington, D.C.

That’s a small geographic fact college President Brian K. Johnson wants Jill Biden to know as the nation’s next second lady mulls whether to continue her community college teaching career after moving into the vice president’s home overlooking Massachusetts Avenue.

“It really is just a stone’s-throw away,” Johnson said. “The campus is literally across the street from the District of Columbia.”

Biden, who recently concluded a 15-year career teaching English at Delaware Technical Community College, has confided in friends that she intends to return to the classroom at some point, somewhere in the Washington area.

“I don’t think she’ll do it right away,” said Mary Doody, who has taught alongside Biden at Delaware Tech for a decade-and-a half. “But she wants to teach. That’s who she is. If she wasn’t moving to Washington, she’d still be teaching here.”

At age 57, Jill Tracy Jacobs Biden seemingly has all the qualities a community college hiring officer would welcome.

She’s deeply experienced in community colleges and their diverse populations. She’s from a middle-class background, but has earned four degrees — a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware, two master’s degrees, from West Chester University and Villanova University, and a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware she earned in 2007.

And when she does decide to start teaching again, friends and colleagues expect her to choose a community college, despite other inducements.

“She’s had some offers I think from four-year schools,” Doody said, “but she said ‘that’s not me.’”

A Passionate Advocate

For 31 years, she’s been married to Joe Biden, the nation’s next vice president. She has raised three children and has five grandchildren.

 And she is a passionate advocate of community colleges and their mission of opening the doors to higher education to their broad student populations.

“It sounds so trite to say I make a difference, but I really feel, especially in a community college, I can make a difference,” Biden told The News Journal in Wilmington in 2007.

“I feel like I can make a difference in their lives,” Biden told The Washington Post last year.  “I just love that population. I love the women who are coming back to school and getting their degrees.”

Leaders of community colleges near Washington — the city has no two-year college of its own — are focusing on luring Biden to their campus.

“This really is someone who has the passion we look for in our faculty,” said Johnson, who said the college wrote Biden a letter of interest shortly after her husband and Barack Obama were elected last Nov. 4.

On the other side of the Potomac River, Northern Virginia Community College also has approached Biden.

“We’ve have had some discussions, but she has not made a decision,” said college President Robert Templin said. “She is interested in staying active, but first she has to arrange her new life. But she is an outstanding faculty member and a dedicated teacher.”

Through a spokeswoman, Biden declined to be interviewed for this article.

Normally, second ladies keep a low profile, sticking to volunteer work and not upstaging the first lady. That has changed somewhat in recent years. Lynne Chaney wrote children’s books and a memoir. Tipper Gore was an outspoken critic of explicit lyrics and the coarseness of pop culture.

Should Biden take a teaching job, she’ll become the first second lady to leave the the vice-president’s home to pursue her own career.

But Biden always has been an unconventional political wife. She never moved to Washington during her husband’s political career. Her husband famously rode Amtrak to return home to Wilmington, Del., every night.

She rarely campaigned for her husband over the years, though that changed last year.

But all the while, she never stopped working. Each Monday to Friday, she handled a developmental English course and a college-level English composition class. On weekends, she hit the campaign trail.

“She left every Thursday to campaign, but was there Monday morning at 8:30,” said her friend and fellow English professor Charlotte Brainerd. “She could have left and everyone would have understood. She told me ‘I can’t let my students down. I wouldn’t leave them in the middle of the semester.’ That’s how she is.”

Bolstering the Movement

Though her status as second lady now can’t be hidden, Biden heretofore has managed to live out of the spotlight, even though she was married to a senator. She never drew attention to the fact that she was a senator’s wife, her friends say.

She defended her doctoral dissertation in 2007 under her maiden name. She kept her husband waiting outside, not wanting her status as a senator’s wife to affect how people perceived her.

Before her husband abandoned his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, she told Time magazine when her husband was running for president before dropping out after the Iowa caucuses, that she intended to be an activist first lady, focusing on education and health issues.

No matter where Biden lands, her presence in Washington can’t help but bolster the community college movement, said Martha Smith, president of Anne Arundel Community College.

Colleges already are getting added attention as a key part of the nation’s economic recovery. Smith thinks Biden’s presence can only help.

“It couldn’t help but add to the momentum,” she said. “She has an extraordinary work ethic,” she added. “She is good at what she does. Anyone who sees her can understand what community colleges are all about. To have someone who gets it is a wonderful thing.”

Johnson agrees.

“I think she has already brought us a new cachet,” he said. “By her mere presence, she can keep people talking about community colleges. She adds a tremendous voice to what we are trying to do.” 

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