Tonawanda News

August 22, 2013

Youthful crowd embraces college reform agenda

By Tim Chipp /
The Tonawanda News

AMHERST — AMHERST — For many lucky enough to land a ticket to see President Barack Obama speak in Amherst it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The crowd of largely college-aged students, a group that has twice proved a vital part of the coalition that elevated Obama to the Oval Office, didn't disappoint this time either. Roaring their approval when a video screen showed Air Force One landing in Cheektowaga — and again when Obama bounded on stage — those in attendance offered the nation's commander-in-chief a hearty Western New York welcome.

They even forgave an early gaffe when Obama called Democratic congressman Brian Higgins "mayor" — transposing Higgins' title with that of Byron Brown, the city of Buffalo's actual mayor.

"Here's what happens when you get to be 52 years old," Obama quipped to a laugh from the crowd.

Obama spoke for 38 minutes to more than 7,000 people in a hot and humid Alumni Arena, his first stop on a four-city, two-day bus tour to promote a new higher education initiative aimed at driving down the cost of getting a college degree. His speech in Western New York was billed as the major policy address around which the tour was planned and it received national media attention.

The line to get into the arena stretched around the road that loops through campus, so far that the arena could not be seen behind the last person in line at 10:20 a.m., just under an hour before Obama was scheduled to speak.

A pair of Niagara University students were in that line moving slowly toward the arena in anticipation of the president’s remarks on lowering the cost of a college education.

Andrea Nicolia, a senior education major, said she was excited to hear the president speak about an issue that so directly applies to her situation as a college student.

“It’s a big deal to us at this time,” she said.

Matthew Nadler, a senior political science major and an academic senate representative in the Niagara University Student Government Association, said he jumped at the opportunity to hear Obama speak as soon as he was offered a ticket.

“I was overwhelmed with the opportunity just to go hear him speak,” Nadler said. 

Though a self-identified libertarian, Nadler said the president's message resonated with college students.

"I liked his ideas he was talking about, like holding the schools accountable (through rankings)," he said. "I liked hearing about how students shouldn't have to pay more than 10 percent of their income on student loans. I enjoyed the experience and am very happy I had the opportunity to go."

Nicolia was also impressed with the message Obama delivered, adding the way he not only addressed the problems but also gave solutions was refreshing.

"I like that he wasn't negative," she said. "He addressed the problems we have and said what we need to do to in the future.

Afterward, the crowd buzzed as Obama shook hands and kissed a baby on his way back to his bus.

James Battle, a sophomore communications major at the University at Buffalo, joked with a group of fellow students as they exited the arena.

Battle said he found the president's speech compelling and felt that, being that he is not eligible for another term in office, it was clear that he was not campaigning.

"You could tell this was genuine," he said. "It's not just so that we would vote for him. I thought that meant a lot."

Battle, who supports some of the Obama administration's policies but has doubts about others, uses federal student loans to help pay for his tuition. The president's plan makes him more confident that the decision to attend college will pay off, he said.

"Most college students, one of their biggest fears is being able to pay off their loans, especially if they borrow money," he said. "This is really reassuring."

The last time Obama traveled to Western New York in 2010 his itinerary included an unscheduled lunch stop for chicken wings at Duffs near the airport in Cheektowaga. Though speculation was rampant Obama might make a similar stop somewhere this time, as well, the president opted for a midday stop a deli in Rochester, a city that wasn't included as a destination on the announced bus tour route.