Dr. Jill Biden, Second Lady of the United States, knows first-hand the difficulties faced by some community college students. As a professor with more than 20 years of teaching experience in community college classrooms, she has encountered students with heartbreaking and inspirational stories time and time again.
She shared some of those stories with community college leaders at the annual Achieving the Dream National Reform Network conference in Baltimore on Friday. Her address was the final session of the conference and helped highlight the strengths of community colleges.
Biden said she once met a student at her community college through the Women’s Mentoring Project who, as it turned out, arrived at the college only after escaping an abusive relationship and living in a car with her two young children. Her story ended happily—she transferred to a four-year college and obtained a bachelor’s degree in accounting, allowing her to better support her family.
That student’s success, Biden said, is why community colleges are vital.
“That is what community college is all about. Community colleges do not pick and choose their students. We work with all students to help them become who they aspire to be,” Biden said.
Community colleges have the power to almost completely transform students’ lives, she said.
“Many of my students have doubts when they first arrive at college. I’m sure you’ve seen that. They’re unsure of their future, unaware of the possibilities they possess. Then, two years later, those same students proudly accept their diplomas knowing that they have achieved something that no one can ever take away from them,” Biden said.
Although there has been an almost unprecedented amount of interest in community college of late, following President Obama’s proposal of free community college, Biden reminded the crowd that the current administration signaled its commitment to community college and higher education even in the depths of the recession.
“We increased the dollar amount of Pell grants, as well as the numbers of students who apply to college. We increased tuition tax credits, let students cap their federal loan payments at 10 percent of their income, and streamlined the financial aid process,” she said.
Biden’s remarks were preceded by comments from six community college students. Their paths to college were circuitous—some overcame jail sentences, addiction, or never finished high school. One woman was an undocumented immigrant. All agreed that, without community college, they may never have found their path to a degree.
They stressed that they are not the only students who have had to overcome substantial odds to get to where they are.
“I just want you to know that … a lot of things go on [in] students’ [lives], especially community college students. They have to work … And, as I see [with] my friends, they are very burdened with their family issues,” said Heejeon Kim, a student at Richland College in Dallas, Texas.
Their stories underscored the fact that many community college students are “nontraditional” and, as such, need different kinds of support than their peers who come to college straight out of high school and are able to devote all their time to pursuing a degree.
Rhiannon Donaldson said that she dropped out of high school but had found her academic passion at Lone Star College in Dallas, Texas. “I didn’t know I had potential before I got to college,” she said.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].