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"Dr. B"'s running start in the East Wing suggests she’ll be a busy, first-of-her-kind first lady 

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
February 05, 2021 06:09 PM
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While an Air Force jet stood ready to whisk Joe and Jill Biden from their home in Delaware to Washington, D.C., for his presidential inauguration the next day, the future first lady was on Zoom — conducting class with the Northern Virginia Community College students who know the English professor as "Dr. B." 

Then on her first full day as first lady, Dr. Biden was back on Zoom Jan. 21, this time with 11,000 fellow teachers around the country.

"As soon as we moved in here," she tells PEOPLE, "one of the first things I [did] was connect with educators and say, 'This is our moment.' "

When President Biden and the first lady sat down with PEOPLE for their first White House interview (in a cover story on newsstands now), both made crystal clear that she would continue with her career in education while pursuing an ambitious to-do list from the East Wing.

"I teach writing and I taught all eight years that I was second lady," Dr. Biden, 69, explains. "As Joe knows that's my passion, that's my life."

Seated beside her in the White House Blue Room, the president notes that the average age of her students is 28. "The thing that surprises me is how much energy Jill gets from her students. These are people that are struggling … [they] weren't the people who graduated from high school and were loving school, but they're remaking their lives and it's an inspiration," he says, recalling how many times his wife comes home with stories of her students overcoming great odds.

• For more from Joe and Jill Biden's first White House interview, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands now.

Jill Biden
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden waves as she and President Joe Biden travel in the presidential motorcade on Inauguration Day.
| Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz
joe and jill biden
Jill and Joe Biden on the February 15 cover of People
| Credit: Celeste Sloman

"It's energy for Jill," he says, "as well as a lot of work."

And it's a job she'll be doing alongside her unpaid work as first lady, making Dr. Biden not only the first presidential spouse to be addressed as "doctor" (she has a PhD in education) but also the first in modern memory to keep separate career while her husband is in office. 

"It's really important that she's an educator and I've supported it all the way through," the president, 78, tells PEOPLE. "She took off two years when we first got married because the boys were little, but I think it's important that she has the things that she cares a great deal about and her independence."

The first lady says that, especially as teachers and their students have had to adapt on the fly with COVID-19 to remote teaching and then hybrid schedules of both remote and in-person class, she wants to "lift up teachers and celebrate who they are because especially in this pandemic, we've seen the strength and resilience of our teachers."

• Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: President Biden and Dr. Biden streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

She also shares her husband's hope of uniting Democrats and Republicans behind solutions to the pandemic, economic crisis and more.

In her first days at the White House she convened get-acquainted video conferences with spouses of the nation's governors and spouses of senior defense officials. And she visited a cancer clinic and convened a videoconference with experts at the National Cancer Institute.

"The whole theme this [first week] and Joe's administration has been unity and I think it was really important that, day one, we show that kind of unity. So I asked the governors' spouses to meet with me — over Zoom, of course — and tell me what they were doing, what was on their minds, share our stories. And that's what we hope to do going forward," Dr. Biden says.

On her call with military spouses, she announced the relaunch of Joining Forces — her 2011-2017 initiative with then-First Lady Michelle Obama — and promised to work in partnership with them on addressing the needs of military personnel and their families. 

Jill Biden
First lady Dr. Jill Biden (center) walks with Kim Thiboldeaux (left), CEO of the Cancer Support Community, during a tour of Whitman-Walker Health hospital on Jan. 22 in Washington, D.C.
| Credit: JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/AFP via Getty

RELATED VIDEO: President Joe Biden and Dr. Biden on Their Grandkids' Future in Public Office

Being first lady, she says, "is the honor of a lifetime. But I know that, even more than that, it's a responsibility to serve the American people."

To the doctors and medical researchers at the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Biden noted that she lost both her parents as well as son Beau to cancer.

"With Beau's cancer, we tried everything and it just— it—," she said, her voice catching, "you're giving families hope, and you have no idea how much that means."

Calling cancer research and cancer care "not a red issue or a blue issue; it's a human issue," the first lady told those dedicating their lives to treating and curing cancer.

"I want you to know the president and I stand with you," she said. "This is the fight of our lives. We will never stop working to end this disease. I know we're going to go farther than ever before."