Smiling students processing into the Commencement ceremony

Three to Receive Buffalo State President’s Distinguished Service Award at 152nd Commencement Celebration


Buffalo State University will bestow the President’s Distinguished Service Award on three notable individuals, including one alumna, during the university’s 152nd Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 18, in the campus Sports Arena. 

The President’s Distinguished Service Award recognizes individuals or groups who have made significant sustained contributions to Buffalo State University or the larger community that educate the individual, serve the public good, and enrich the broader community.

Charlene M. Fontana, SSJ, Class of 2004

9:00 a.m. Ceremony | School of the Professions

Headshot of Charlene Fontana

Sister Charlene Fontana retired from her position as assistant to the director of student life at Buffalo State University in 2016 after a 26-year career of exemplary service. In addition, she served as campus minister and religious education coordinator for the university’s Newman Center Catholic Campus Ministry for over 15 years, concurrent with her volunteer efforts on behalf of the Theater Department.

Fontana graduated from Cathedral School in Buffalo in 1960 and Mount St. Joseph Academy in Buffalo in 1964. She joined the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1964. She went on to graduate from Medaille College with a bachelor of science in education in 1972 and earned her master’s in student personnel administration from Buffalo State in 2004 at age 58.

She has received countless honors and citations through the years, including the Diocesan Service to Youth Award and the John Cardinal Newman Service Award from the Newman Center at Buffalo State. She is also an honorary member of Buffalo State’s Casting Hall Productions.

Fontana has been honored as a valued volunteer by Leadership Buffalo, the Committee for Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges, the Mildred Keller Campbell Student Leadership Award Committee, the Committee for the Study and Understanding of Community and Peace, and others.

In recent years, she has continued her volunteer work with the Buffalo State television and film arts (TFA) program and as chaplain to the University Police Department. She serves as a board member for Baker Victory Services in Lackawanna and a member of the Anne Frank Project Honorary Committee; she also volunteers at the reception desk for the Sisters of St. Joseph’s residence in Clarence. Her dedication to others personifies the phrase “The quality of our presence is the essence of our ministry,” a foundational element of the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Cindy Abbott Letro

1:00 p.m. Ceremony | School of Arts and Sciences

Headshot of Cindy Abbott Letro

Lucinda “Cindy” Abbott Letro is a marketing specialist with over 30 years of experience in the broadcast field who is committed to strengthening the fabric of her community through volunteerism, philanthropy, and leadership. She currently chairs the New York State Council of Parks Niagara Commission; Visit Buffalo Niagara, the region’s convention and visitors bureau; and the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission.

As past chair of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Society Board, Letro participated in two successful trips by the orchestra to Carnegie Hall and an international trip to Poland.

She is a former chair of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State. During her tenure, the center fulfilled its dream of building a new $35 million facility on the corner of Rockwell Road and Elmwood Avenue on the campus of Buffalo State University.

She currently serves or has served on the boards of St. Bonaventure University, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, Kleinhans Music Hall, the National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York, Just Buffalo, and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site.

She is consistently listed in Business First’s Top 200 Women of Influence and was among the top 10 in 2022.

She and her husband, Francis Letro, support a wide variety of civic projects and cultural organizations. Their financial gift to the University at Buffalo School of Law in 2002 created the Francis M. Letro Courtroom, the first working courtroom in the nation where students are able to watch real trials in progress.

Letro graduated cum laude with a bachelor of arts from the College of Wooster and earned a master of science in communications from the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

She has received numerous awards for her philanthropy and service, including the Red Jacket Award from the Buffalo History Museum (2011), the Community Foundation’s Burt Flickinger Jr. Leadership Award (2006), and the President’s Award from the Theodore Roosevelt National Historic Site’s (2006). She was inducted into the Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sharon M. Belton-Cottman

5:00 p.m. Ceremony | School of Education

Headshot of Sharon Belton-Cottman

Sharon Belton-Cottman, president of the Buffalo Board of Education, has served as the board’s Ferry District representative since spring 2011. Belton-Cottman previously served as board president from 2019 to 2021 and has again been serving consecutive terms since January 1, 2023.

A native Buffalonian, she attended Public School 47 (Hickory Street), Clinton Junior High, Genesee Humboldt Junior High, and East High School. Additionally, she attended Canisius University and earned a bachelor of science degree from Medaille College.

Belton-Cottman is a passionate defender of her district and all children. During her tenure, she has served as vice president of executive affairs, as chair of finance and operations, on numerous task forces, and on educational and community advisory boards. Demanding greater accountability, transparency in governance, and equity in schools, she is an avid participant in board committees and work sessions. Since 2013, her focus has expanded to working with stakeholders, staff members, parents, and student concerns. Her goals include increasing and improving options for overaged students in career and technical (vocational) education, virtual learning, STEM/STEAM programs, restorative justice, mental health, adult education, and English-language learners.

Belton-Cottman’s community collaborations include Say Yes to Education, Hamlin Park Claude and Ouida Clapp Academy, and HOPE Buffalo. She most recently assisted in launching a pilot adult education training program with Alfred State and Empire State Development in welding and machine tools at Burgard High School. She has played a part in many innovative high school partnerships, including Math Science and Technology Preparatory School, Burgard High School, Bennett High School of Innovative Technology, and Middle Early College High School, whose graduation rate is the highest in the city for minority males. Her most recent activities include an effort to establish a solid base for robotics and STEM/STEAM disciplines for the district. 

Belton-Cottman’s career has focused primarily on the financial industries. She worked as a licensed insurance consultant with Allstate; a licensed mortgage banker with Rochester Community Savings Bank, Citizens Bank, Charter One Bank, and Wells Fargo; an insurance supervisor with Goldome and Empire Realty; and a community lending officer with Charter One Bank. While working in the mortgage industry, she was instrumental in two state-of-the-art housing developments: Main-LaSalle Place and Walden Heights. 

She is a member of True Bethel Baptist Church, the Brunswick Block Club, the Hamlin Park Community and Taxpayers Association, and Women of Worth. Her former memberships include the Buffalo Niagara National Action Network, the S.E.N.S.E.S. Foundation, the Buffalo Erie Niagara Exchange Club, and PUSH Buffalo. She also briefly worked as a Buffalo substitute teacher.