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National News

First Lady Jill Biden head to Eastern Europe to visit Ukrainian refugees

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Tonight, First Lady Jill Biden heads to Eastern Europe. She's planning to meet with U.S. troops and Ukrainian refugees in Slovakia and Romania. On Sunday, she'll visit the Slovakia-Ukraine border. As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, it's the most high-profile moment yet for the first lady.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: First Lady Jill Biden set the tone for how she would approach her new job two days into the Biden presidency. She showed up at the U.S. Capitol to hand out chocolate chip cookies to National Guardsmen and -women who were protecting the building after the January 6 attacks.

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JILL BIDEN: I just wanted to come today to say thank you to all of you for keeping me and my family safe.

DETROW: The first lady told the soldiers that the Bidens were a National Guard family. Beau Biden served in the Delaware National Guard. Just like when she was second lady during the Obama administration, Biden has put a lot of focus on helping other military families. She's also traveled the country promoting COVID vaccines, often alongside the second gentleman.

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BIDEN: Please, if you're listening, this is Doug Emhoff, and I'm Jill Biden. And we want to encourage everybody here in Texas to go and get the vaccine.

DETROW: But most of Biden's public efforts have focused on education. She's been a teacher her entire adult life. When she spoke at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, it was from one of the first classrooms she taught in.

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BIDEN: I have always loved the sounds of a classroom - the quiet that sparks with possibility just before students shuffle in.

DETROW: In fact, Anita McBride says one of the most important things Biden has done during her time in the White House is keep her full-time job as a community college professor in Virginia. McBride is an expert on the Office of the First Lady and served as Laura Bush's chief of staff. It's kind of a strange job, she says.

ANITA MCBRIDE: That has no position description, and each person gets to rewrite that job description in a way that suits them.

DETROW: By keeping her day job and effectively working two full-time jobs, McBride says Jill Biden is charting a new course that future first ladies or first gentlemen could follow. The trip to Slovakia and Romania, McBride says, is more of a classic use of the symbolism of the role. Biden is signaling America's commitments by showing up and bringing media attention with her in two countries who have taken in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and have also served as a staging ground for NATO's military support for Ukraine.

MCBRIDE: More importantly, too, is a validation that the United States is not going to forget the Ukrainian people and also the allied countries that are helping Ukrainian refugees.

DETROW: And within that mission, Biden will continue to focus on education. In both Romania and Slovakia, she'll visit schools that have taken in Ukrainian refugees and talk to the teachers who are helping new Ukrainian students settle in.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.