U.S. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden at a roundtable with First Ladies from African nations

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden Speaks at Columbia Mailman School

The U.S. First Lady met with first ladies of African nations participating in the Global First Ladies Academy.

July 14, 2023

Dr. Jill Biden, First Lady of the United States, spoke at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health this week, as part of a roundtable discussion with first ladies of seven African Nations participating in the Global First Ladies Academy, the first-ever multi-day executive education program designed specifically for leaders in their position. (Watch a slideshow of Dr. Biden’s visit below.)

Over four days, Columbia Mailman faculty and experts from the Global First Ladies Alliance led interactive sessions with first ladies from Botswana, Burundi, The Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, covering topics from effective leadership and strategic policymaking to public health system-strengthening. The Alliance organized the Academy in partnership with the Organization of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD) and Columbia Mailman. (Read more about the Academy here.)

Sitting side-by-side with her fellow first ladies, Dr. Biden spoke about the unique platform of the position and the powerful work first ladies are doing on public health and development. She recalled visiting Namibia where she met with Her Excellency Mrs. Monica Geingos to hear about her leadership on the prevention of HPV and cervical cancer, as well as a subsequent visit to Kenya where she met with Her Excellency Mrs. Rachel Ruto to learn about her work with table banking—a type of microlending.

“Meeting my peers around the world is one of the things I love most about this role—including getting to know many of you at the African Leaders Summit,” said Dr. Biden, referring to a high-level meeting late last year in Washington D.C. “It’s in these moments that we find the common bonds that connect us across oceans and continents. When we support and mentor each other, we grow together, and our successes ripple onward.”

The U.S. First Lady spoke about her own journey growing into her high-profile roles as a spouse of a high-ranking government official, resolving to “never waste my platform.” Being a political spouse is a role unlike any other but is “the honor of a lifetime—a gift we’ve been given to serve the people of our countries,” she added.

Addressing her fellow first ladies, Dr. Biden said, “Whatever challenges you face—and whatever opportunities you have—this group understands the uniqueness of our roles better than anyone. And all of us have something to share—and something to learn as well.” She concluded, saying, “Each of you is setting the course for the future—not only for your nations but for our globe. And I cannot wait to see the incredible things you’re going to do next. Together, with the strength of the sisterhood that surrounds us, we can build a better future for us all of us.”

In earlier welcoming remarks, Cora Neumann, founder and chair of the Global First Ladies Alliance, said the most powerful aspect of the Global First Ladies Academy was the opportunity to bring first ladies together. Addressing Dr. Biden, she said, “Your presence here today is a reminder of how powerful these connections and relationships are. The network, mutual support, and friendships these first ladies form with one another is really what inspires and makes this work possible.”

In her own remarks, Her Excellency Mrs. Monica Geingos, First Lady of Namibia and President of OAFLAD, expressed her gratitude to Dr. Biden for her friendship and support. She said OAFLAD recently sent a letter to the U.S. Congress to thank the American people for the “lifesaving impact of PEPFAR” on HIV/AIDS in Africa and to advocate for its reauthorization. “This lifesaving partnership delivered help and inspired hope in the African fight against HIV and continues to remind us of the impacts of true partnership,” she said.

First Lady Geingos praised the Global First Ladies Academy, saying, “During this executive leadership program, we’ve expanded the learning network that African first ladies have created through OAFLAD to include the incredible faculty of Columbia University. We’ve also expanded our knowledge base on leadership and public health and found ways to design our platforms to maximize impact. Most importantly, we’ve learned so much about each other and the work we’ve done for our respective countries.”

The recent visit by First Lady Biden was not her first to the Columbia Irving Medical Center campus. Last September, she joined Queen Letizia of Spain to learn about cutting-edge research at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and the center’s collaborations to transform care, improve diversity and access in clinical trials and promote diversity and inclusion in science and medicine. The meetings were held at Columbia’s School of Nursing. They heard from faculty, including Mary Beth Terry, professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman and director of the  Community Outreach and Engagement office at the Cancer Center. (Read more about the 2022 visit here.)

Photos courtesy Michael Divito.