Former second lady Jill Biden, speaking at Hofstra’s commencement on Sunday, evoked the death of her stepson Beau Biden from brain cancer in 2015 in a speech about overcoming adversity.
“Eventually, everyone has to walk through the fire, but at times in our life we are called on to do more,” Biden told graduates at Hofstra University’s David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex. “To bring people through the flames, to help them find the other side.”
Her voice catching, she recalled watching her stepson struggle with cancer. Beau Biden, the eldest son of former Vice President Joseph Biden, died May 30, 2015.
“For over a year I watched my brave, strong, funny, bright young son fight brain cancer. Chemotherapy, operation after operation, weight loss, but I never gave up. As a mother, you can’t,” Biden said. “And once again, I had to live a double life. I taught my classes each week, and I continued my duties as second lady. I had to be strong for my children, my husband, but most of all for my son Beau. I had to be strong for him, because in the middle of it all, he was stronger than all of us.”
Biden, who received an honorary degree from Hofstra on Sunday, spoke of her career as a professor and the decision to continue teaching after her husband became vice president.
She recalled that after the 2008 election in which Barack Obama was elected president with her husband joining him on the ticket, she realized she would not “be able to just walk away from teaching.”
“I was honored to become the second lady, but I knew I couldn’t live Joe’s life,” she said. “I couldn’t give up all that I had worked so hard to achieve.”
She told graduates to brace for the unexpected. “So often, when we talk about careers, we assume everyone’s path should look the same. But sometimes the roads we take just aren’t so straight. Sometime we find a detour. Try new things. Fall on our face a bit,” she told the graduates.
Biden, four months removed from her life as second lady, drew parallels between herself and the new graduates. “I was especially happy to be asked to join this celebration today because, like all of you, I’m in a transitional point in my life,” she said.
She made no references to the Trump administration.
When Hofstra’s president Stuart Rabinowitz announced that she had received a doctor of humane letters degree, Biden appeared wistful about her former role.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” she told Rabinowitz, adding: “I don’t get to say that too much anymore.”