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DDS Student Signs National Anthem

Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 22, 2016 – Joe Samona thought he would be just another student among the 43,000 on campus as he settled into his first weeks at the University of Michigan. After arriving in late June to start his first year at the School of Dentistry, he focused on mastering the tough coursework, made more difficult because he is deaf and relies on sign language interpreters who help him understand the lectures.

In late August, just a few days before the first U-M football game, he received an email out of the blue that would significantly raise his campus profile and gain him national attention.  The U-M athletic department was looking for a deaf student who would be willing to interpret the National Anthem in American Sign Language.  A video of the student would be shown on the giant scoreboards at Michigan Stadium during the playing of the National Anthem at each of the eight home games this season.

“It was an easy decision because not many people are aware of American Sign Language and the deaf culture,” he said. “I thought this is a great opportunity for me to spread the awareness. It is important for me to do it because ASL has been a huge part of my life. This is the language that plays a role in my education and it is also how I communicate with people.”


A video of Joe Samona signing the National Anthem is shown in the box on the lower left corner of the giant scoreboard at Michigan Stadium during the first home football game

After he agreed to do the video, he began practicing the anthem “day and night” with his interpreters, friends and family, including his sister Heba, who is also deaf.  “It is tough to sign the National Anthem because it tends to be more creative and more expressive,” he said. “You must understand the meaning and the story behind the lyrics so you can paint a clear, visual and imaginative picture in ASL. The grammar is very different in ASL and English, making it difficult to translate.”

He also worked with one of his interpreters on how to keep the motions for the various phrases timed to the music and lyrics.  Because he had practiced so much in advance, he said it only took two takes in front of the video camera before he was satisfied with his performance.

At the first game on Sept. 3, he was in the student section watching himself sign the anthem in an inset box in the lower left of the video scoreboards while other scenes from around the stadium were displayed on the rest of the big screen. He said it was hard to believe what he was seeing – 110,222 people looking up at his image during the National Anthem at the iconic Big House as he was doing his patriotic duty in the specialized language that is so much a part of his life. What he couldn’t experience was the goosebump-inducing roar from the huge crowd as the Michigan Marching Band finished the anthem and two military jets screamed over the stadium.

He received a steady stream of congratulations before and after the first game as word of his performance spread to friends, family, fellow students and the local deaf community.  It also gained national attention after Brad Galli, a sportscaster at Detroit television station WXYZ, posted social media links to a story the station did about Samona’s video anthem. Samona was surprised to find two high-profile deaf Americans acknowledging his accomplishment:  Actress Marlee Matlin retweeted Galli’s post with a note – “Congrats Joe Samona.  Best of luck to you.” – and Nyle DiMarco, winner of the 2015 season of the television show, “Dancing With the Stars,” included Galli’s post in his Twitter feed, which promotes many issues and events related to the deaf community.

Samona is still taken aback by how quickly he moved from being a rank-and-file student to a featured part of U-M football games in front of 110,000 people.  His quick ascension to the Big House video screens was facilitated by Jill Rice, the university’s Coordinator of Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students. She said there are three deaf students on campus this fall, along with about 40 classified as hard of hearing. (One of the other deaf students is also at the School of Dentistry; Michael Korleski is a first-year student in the dental hygiene program.)

Using a pre-produced video of the same student at all the home games is a modification of how the athletic department displayed the sign language interpretation of the National Anthem last season for the first time. The idea was promoted to the athletic department by Larry Lage, an Associated Press sportswriter based in Ann Arbor.  As the child of deaf parents and the uncle of two deaf nephews, Lage has long been an advocate for that community, focusing in recent years on promoting sign language during the National Anthem at sporting events. Last year during U-M home games, Lage coordinated bringing in a different student each week from the Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint to be shown signing the anthem live on the big screens.  Lage said this year the athletic department suggested doing a video in advance that would be used at all the games, so he coordinated the production, working with Samona and the athletic department video crew.

Samona said the most people he had previously signed for at one time was probably about 30 in a classroom a few times.  He wasn’t an advocate for deaf issues when he was growing up in Bloomfield Hills, but in high school he joined a deaf academic bowl program and deaf basketball team, both of which competed nationally.  He has attended many deaf events over the years, though none are at the level of his latest National Anthem profile. Even just the routine of completing his coursework at the School of Dentistry, where interpreters are in the classroom with him, in some way elevates the public’s understanding of how the deaf must navigate society. “I am very involved in my deaf community and that makes me an advocate for the deaf community,” Samona said.

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The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. 

For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu oe
Contact:  Sharon Grayden, Communications Director, at (734) 615-2600, dentistry.communications@umich.edu, or Lynn Monson, Writer, at (734) 615-1971.