Dr. Jill Biden Talk: Encouraging Community Support and Personal Strengths
Former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden spoke at Eisenhower Auditorium on October 10th, covering a wide range of topics and life experiences. The event was organized by and sponsored by the Student Programming Association, and also sponsored by both the Gender Equity Center and Penn State World Campus.
Biden began her talk by going over women’s issues, with a focus on sexual assault, which she described as being “shrouded in secrecy and shame.” She explained how inspired she has been by seeing firsthand the forgiveness and resolve of sexual assault survivors, particularly among her students. Biden had taught English at the Delaware Technical and Community College for about fifteen years before becoming Second Lady in 2008. Shortly after that point, she began teaching at Northern Virginia Community College, where she continues to work as an English teacher to this day. In addition to the attitude of student survivors, she also praised the “work being done by students to lift up hurt and oppressed voices.”
After discussing this initial issue, Biden talked more about her personal life, and about her struggles. She began by describing her early life, explaining that “I grew up as the oldest of five girls, in a suburb of Philly.”. After meeting then-Senator Joe Biden in her mid-twenties, falling in love with him, and eventually marrying him, she didn’t lose her personal career ambitions. “He had a job to do, and so did I. Actually, I had a few.”
Jill Biden talked about the importance of the Biden Foundation, which was launched in February 2017 by her and her husband. She had seen the difficulties that “students, teachers, and community members alike” faced in trying to balance different aspects of their lives. She added to this point by commenting that women bear a “heavier burden” in our society. This, she explains, motivated her to provide this support network for other women, especially those who put the needs of others above their own, as one function of the Biden Foundation. She specifically noted the struggles that “women of color, those with disabilities, the LGBT community, rural communities, and those living in poverty,” face, beyond what other groups of women do. “We can’t forget to reach back, and help the women who are still struggling” Biden comments,“…that is what’s at the heart of a teacher.”
Biden continued with anecdotes from her life, including how she dealt with her son Beau Biden’s fight with cancer, and his resulting death in 2015. “I never gave up hope. As a mother, you can’t. I had to be strong for Beau.” She read a favorite quote of hers, from an unnamed poet, the quote being “what matters most, is how well you walk through the fire.” She said that, you can’t always know what others are going through, but that “Eventually, everyone has to walk through the fire.”
After this, she shifted her focus from somber to engaged, encouraging students to become involved, when they are driven by caring and by passion. She also read a quote from novelist Alice Walker: “look closely at the present you are constructing; it should look like the future you are dreaming.” Biden told students to get engaged in community support work; she expanded on this point later, during her Q&A. She concluded her speech by thanking the students “for all the good you will do together, for the better future you are dreaming.”
In the Q&A that followed, Biden was asked by a designated questioner, about several topics that she hadn’t had time to cover, and also to expand on topics that she had already gone over.
A new topic question was about what qualities she looks for in a leader. “Think about it,” Biden began, “you think of people who make you feel something, [those who] make me want to do more.” Biden continued to repeat the important of leaders who naturally inspire emotion in you throughout answering this question.
Biden was asked to explain methods for harnessing leadership qualities, and she said that “you can’t just live in your own little circle, in your own little world. You have to reach out… that’s what I try to teach my students.” She also briefly listed examples of this, such as neighbors shoveling the driveway of a military family out of good will, and starting an in-class food drive to support struggling students, among others.
It was mentioned that October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Biden further talked about her strong feelings towards stopping domestic violence. She asked students that if they “see something that is not right, say something!” noting the lasting impact of trauma and abuse. “When you are abused, it’s not an illness where you get better… you deal with it. You find that inner strength through your friends, your community, your family.” According to Biden, stopping domestic violence requires “changing the culture” which surrounds that violence.
Biden’s answer to the final question, on giving words of encouragement to people who are experiencing interpersonal or societal divisiveness, was a call to action. Instead of sitting and complaining, Biden says that we should have a more active outlook on the issues we care about. “Go to your strength. Go to what you’re good at. Whatever it is, whatever moves you, whatever grabs your heart, that’s what you have to do to make a change.” She relates this back to her own career, explaining that teaching is her strength.
When asked about how Biden’s talk made her feel, Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of International Programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences, described it as “a refreshing speech, to hear words of inspiration, [of] positive encouragement.” Behring added that “sometimes we don’t take enough time out of our day to think about that, so it was really encouraging to hear her words of inspiration.”
Gillian Warner, a freshman in community, environment, and development, added to this, saying that “it was very inspirational to hear her talk about how each of us has the strength within our passion, within what we’re good at, to make a difference in individual lives, as well as benefit the entire community.”