Friday afternoon, a group of military teens got together online to talk about their efforts to connect with new students and make them feel welcome even during the pandemic-imposed restrictions.
But this was no ordinary Zoom gathering.
The conversation came during a virtual teleconference with first lady Jill Biden.
The teens were providing their perspective to Biden on their experiences, and their participation in a volunteer program called Student 2 Student, a program offered by the Military Child Education Coalition at more than 500 elementary, middle and high schools worldwide. The program teams up military and civilian students in an effort to welcome new students, and ease their transition.
“It was tough from the beginning when the pandemic hit. We found ways to connect with new students,” said Jacob, a sophomore at Widefield High School in Colorado Springs, and step-son of a retired soldier. But he’s glad they’re back in person at school. “We’re trying to help new students, spending time with them, doing everything we can to make them feel comfortable. It’s so hard to do that on a video conference,” he said.
“It’s nice that you’re so welcoming. I know students really appreciate your reaching out to them and trying to make connections,” said Biden. “Otherwise they’re home, and by themselves. This pandemic is really, really tough.
“One thing I love about the military community, there is no ‘no.’ You will find a way to do this. And Jacob, that’s exactly what you’re doing in your school, so thank you.”
This was Biden’s second appearance with the Military Child Education Coalition, following her keynote address to the nonprofit’s Education Summit on Nov. 17, where she discussed her desire to strengthen support for military-connected children and families.
On Jan. 14, Biden announced her intention to make military families a top priority, and she announced that Rory Brosius would be executive director of Joining Forces, an effort that began during the Obama-Biden administration. Biden praised Brosius as a passionate advocate for military families who has worked with her for nearly 10 years. Brosius is the wife of a Marine Corps veteran.
During the Obama administration, Biden worked on a number of efforts to support military children.
Students on the call described virtual meetings where they have various activities such as game nights and virtual dancing. Some schools have moved back to in-person classes, and the groups have been able to meet with masks and social distancing.
“It’s nice to see each other and communicate in person,” said Kaylie, a sophomore at North Augusta High School, South Carolina, whose mother is active duty Navy stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Asked what they’d like the general public to know about military children, a common theme among the students was that they learn to be flexible, and they’re selfless, stepping up in a variety of ways for their families, as their parent could be called away at any time. Kaylie said she’s had to move quite a bit, leaving behind dear friends. “I think it’s incredibly hard, but it also makes us incredibly strong as well.”
But military children can be vulnerable, and while they may try to be strong, it’s sometimes difficult. Sometimes students may feel “Hey, I’ve done this a couple of times, but I still don’t want to put myself out there,” perhaps fearful of rejection, said Connor, a senior at Burkburnett High School, Burkburnett, Texas. “That’s why I’m so happy about [Student 2 Student], because they help students to not feel like that. They help students feel accepted.”
The students also want to make the general public aware that military children serve their country, too, along with their parents.
“Your president and I realize you serve, too. It’s the families who serve alongside the military person. I don’t want you to feel like we don’t see you. We see you,” Biden said. The Student 2 Student program is especially important during this pandemic, she said, when acts of kindness are so important, she said. But while she sees their resilience, their flexibility and strength, “I also see your vulnerability. Don’t underestimate how hard it is, how difficult it is,” she said.
Biden told the teens that hers is a military family. Her late son Beau served in the Delaware Army National Guard. Although his family didn’t move, she saw what his children went through when he was deployed for a year, missing their father when he was away.
“Please know President Biden, my husband Joe, sees you every single day and appreciates all the sacrifices that you all are making for this country.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.