Obama 'a cool dad'
by Larry Austin
Officials at the University at Buffalo are elated by the performance of an Islander who was chosen to introduce the president of the United States for his policy speech last Thursday.
Silvana D'Ettorre, a UB sophomore, drew the honor of introducing President Barack Obama before his address at UB on Aug. 22. Obama visited Western New York during a two-day speaking tour about college costs and the economy. His speech was covered in national media outlets.
"Silvana was terrific. Such poise ... she made the university very proud," said UB Assistant Vice President for Media Relations John DellaContrada after the speech.
D'Ettorre said that since introducing the president she has had relatives calling her from out of state, she's heard from past teachers, and she's been recognized on campus since classes started on Monday.
"It feels pretty exciting," she said of the experience that encompassed a roller coaster of emotions for the 19-year-old. D'Ettorre was at first disappointed to learn earlier in the week that she didn't win a coveted ticket to the president's address in Alumni Arena.
"The funny thing was I had applied and put my name in the lottery, and I did not win a ticket. I know all my friends did," she said. "I was pretty upset."
She's the envy of all her friends now. Tuesday night before the Thursday event, at around 9 o'clock, she got a call on her cell phone from a restricted number in Washington, D.C. It was the White House calling, out of the clear blue, to ask her if she would introduce the president before his policy speech.
"It was crazy," she said.
D'Ettorre believes she was chosen by college officials because of her involvement on campus, her summer work in the office of the Undergraduate Academies, and her work as a student ambassador.
"Apparently, the White House wanted a female, a sophomore, from the local area, and in the "Finish in 4" program," D'Ettorre said. "And I just managed to fit all the criteria."
Accepting the assignment to introduce Obama before 7,000 people in the audience set in motion a nerve-wracking 36 hours.
"I was so nervous. When I got the phone call, and I called my parents ... I had them come to campus so I could tell them. And I was shaking. I almost started crying, I was just so nervous," she said, laughing in hindsight.
Just how does one go about introducing the most powerful man in the world? D'Ettorre said she received an email from the White House with suggestions on what to talk about, such as the SUNY system and UB's "Finish in 4" program, and a link to a YouTube video showing an example of another person introducing the president.
"But everything else I had to come up with by myself. I talked about my relatives here who are successful dentists, and that was kind of the start of my speech," D'Ettorre said.
She said her cousins, brother and sister dentists Roseanne and Joe Modica from Joseph S. Modica, D.D.S., and Associates, are UB grads. Her older brother, Nikolas, is a UB senior studying biological sciences and linguistics with a minor in Chinese, and her sister, Sierra, is entering her senior year at Grand Island High School with plans to apply to UB. D'Ettorre herself is majoring in exercise science with plans to attend UB's dental school.
"It was tough, but I stayed up all night writing it and fixing it," she said of the speech.
During her introduction, D'Ettorre said UB "offers various academic, professional and social opportunities for all ethnicities. UB is part of the SUNY system, which is a national leader in providing more than 450,000 students statewide with higher education and job opportunities. And UB is also a prime example of a low-cost, high-quality option for college students."
Obama's speech about making college more affordable for the middle class hit home with D'Ettorre, which she alluded to in her introduction.
The "Finish in 4" program "makes me completely comfortable that I will not have any additional, unexpected loans, especially during a time of increased college costs," D'Ettorre said in the introduction.
"Some people spend all this money investing in a degree and in their education, but some people don't end up getting a career that can pay it off in a good amount of time, so it's crucial that we decrease the prices and somehow help out students with loans so they're not worrying about it their entire lives," D'Ettorre explained. "With myself and my brother going to college and my sister next year, it's just a lot for my family financially."
Any jitters disappeared when she made it to the podium, which D'Ettorre credits in part to the man she introduced. She was put at ease minutes before her introduction after a one-on-one meeting with Obama, who she described as like "a cool dad."
"I did get to meet President Obama backstage before I went up to the podium, and he was really relaxed himself and down to earth," D'Ettorre said. Sitting in the arena with her parents, Alan and Rachelle D'Ettorre, Silvana was called and escorted backstage for what turned out to be more than just an impersonal meet-and-greet.
"He actually walked through the door and said, 'How you doing, Silvana?' " D'Ettorre said. "I can't remember what my face looked like, but I'm pretty sure my jaw had dropped. I was not expecting him to say my name right away.
"And I shook his hand and I told him I never imagined myself ever doing this. It's such an honor."
After official photos and autographs, Obama asked D'Ettorre about herself.
"I told him that I wanted to go to dental school, and he said, 'You should be a dentist. You have a nice smile.' "
A highlight came moments after the introduction when Obama walked up to D'Ettorre on the podium and gave her a hug. The embrace was entirely unplanned.
"They just told me to wait for him up there," D'Ettorre said. "And so I did, and I went in for a handshake. You know, professional, OK? And he put his arms out for a hug and I was thinking, 'Oh, man, I better not make this hug look weird.' "
Far from weird, they looked like old buddies.
"It definitely caught me by surprise," she said.
See the video of the speech at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/RemarksonCol.