The Daily Illini

Student receives unique opportunity

By Gillian Dunlop, Managing Editor for Reporting

Amaury Saulsberry does not always pick up his phone when receiving a call. On Sept. 5, he did.

The call was from Robin Kaler, associate chancellor of public affairs, offering Saulsberry, junior in FAA, the opportunity of a lifetime.

“(Kaler) told me they heard about my story, my background and all the interesting stuff I’ve been doing on campus,” he said. “Then (she) asked, would I like to welcome (Obama) to the stage.”

The oldest of six children, with the youngest being only 2 months old, Saulsberry hails from the South Side of Chicago, where he and his parents have lived all their lives.

For Saulsberry, attending a four-year university was not always an option. His family income is less than $50,000. With six children to feed, there was no extra money for university tuition. Still, Saulsberry had a goal.

“I’ve always wanted to come (to the University) since the eighth grade,” he said. “I visited and loved it. It was different. It wasn’t Chicago.”

Saulsberry was awarded the Illinois Promise scholarship, which grants sufficient scholarship funds to high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds, according to the Office of Student Financial Aid website.

“If it wasn’t for the scholarship, I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said.

However, Saulsberry’s success began earlier than his university career. Two years ago, Saulsberry’s little brother suffered from complications as an infant. He was unable to hold down food and would constantly spit up throughout the day.

“It took a toll on my mom. It took a toll on my parents,” Saulsberry said. “After three months, he was diagnosed with acid reflux. Eighty percent of his esophagus was damaged.”

Saulsberry said he was inspired by his little brother’s condition to create a pacifier that enables early detection of acid reflux.

Since having the initial idea, Saulsberry has continued to grow his company, Nouvo, recruiting electrical engineers on campus and developing prototype pacifiers that detect acid reflux and other oral illnesses.

“His company is pretty amazing,” Kaler said.

Since coming to campus, Saulsberry has been involved in a number of entrepreneurial opportunities, including iVenture Accelerator, which offers student startups the chance to grow their companies through funding and networking.

As an industrial design major, Saulsberry has been committed to designing and creating throughout his university career.

“As a young artist and designer, Amaury demonstrates enormous potential, and I could not be happier for him,” said Christopher Kienke, assistant professor in FAA. “It was a real pleasure to work with him last semester.”

Amaury’s academic success and his ability to overcome challenges made him a top contender for introducing Obama.

“The representative for President Obama reached out and asked us to send them some names and bios of students who faced some difficult challenges to get here and made the most of their experience here at Illinois,” Kaler said.

A dozen students were being considered to introduce Obama. If Saulsberry hadn’t picked up his phone when Kaler called, she would have gone on to the next candidate.

“For some reason, he actually took the call,” Kaler said.

The first thing Saulsberry did when he hung up with Kaler was call his parents.

“I Facetimed my parents … and I’m like, ‘I’m going to open up for Obama,’ so they started screaming on the phone,” he said. “They were super pumped.”

The second thing he did was panic.

“It was a lot of pressure, a ton of pressure, just because it was very last minute, and I knew it was going to be a lot of people watching,” he said.

Saulsberry’s parents were invited to attend the speech and had front row seats. On Friday morning, Saulsberry arrived at Foellinger Auditorium at 8:30 a.m. At 10 a.m., he was asked to go backstage to meet former President Barack Obama.

“It was really chill, surprisingly,” he said. “You think of him as the president, and it’s like, the title holds all the weight. He was very down to earth, really relaxed. Even when he talks to you, it kind of soothes you, in a weird way.”

Obama and Saulsberry connected on their shared history of living in the South Side of Chicago.

“After maybe the first few seconds, we started talking about where we’re from,” he said. “That’s where it kind of got more relaxed for me … it calmed me down a lot.”

The only problem was Saulsberry does not enjoy public speaking.

“It was a big moment for me,” he said. “For one, I hate public speaking, I absolutely hate public speaking, but once I got on stage I had no choice but to deliver.”

Although Obama visited close to a week ago, Saulsberry is still receiving kind words from friends and fellow students.

“That day I got maybe over a dozen emails of people congratulating me, and that’s just emails,” he said. “It’s still going on, I’m still hearing from people now.”

Saulsberry was only 11 years old when Obama was elected president in 2008, but after meeting him in person, he’s recognized the significance of his presidency.

“Just seeing him in that position and having that power and that influence, I guess it made me want to have that type of leadership role,” he said. “Most people where I’m from don’t go for big things like this, so I think watching Obama has made me believe that I can do it, it’s given me more motivation.”

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