For the majority of her life, Betsy McTiernan ’69 has maintained a strong personal connection to Lake Ontario. Her early memories of vacationing along its shores at Sandy Island State Park made the decision to attend college at SUNY Oswego a simple one.
“When I saw the location of Oswego and realized I could spend four years living in a lakefront dorm, I was sold,” said Betsy, a Central New York native who majored in English and 7-12 education. Little did she know then that the lake would figure prominently throughout her life.
She described her time at Oswego as an intellectual and political awakening in her life.
“I had always been a reader, but here I learned to interpret literature and appreciate poetry,” she said. “In my junior year, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Those woke me up to racism and instilled in me a lifelong commitment to oppose it and to work for equal rights.”
She got married a week after graduating and began teaching at a middle school in Washington, D.C., where all of the students and all but five teachers were African American.
“Needless to say, this was a defining year in my life,” she said. “I saw up close the effects of systemic racism in our country.”
A year later, she returned to CNY, and in 1971, she began her job as a tutor-counselor at SUNY Oswego’s Equal Opportunity Program, which eventually became the current Office of Learning Services.
“It was a perfect job for me as it allowed me to help integrate the college while working with others to develop innovative methods for teaching, tutoring and advising,” she said. During her 31 years at SUNY Oswego, she would go on to develop the first tutoring program, the Writing Center and the first writing course for international students.
A few years after she retired in 2002, she moved from Oswego, only to return in 2015 to a house that is a seven-minute walk away from her beloved lake.
Throughout her life, she has swum in the lake every day she can or has sat along “her beach” often to think and read.
“I swim alone, parallel to the shore,” she said. “I love the feeling of freedom of being alone in a huge body of water. I take my problems to the lake. The enormity of the lake soothes me and puts in perspective, my one small life.”
Today, she remains active protecting the lake as the co-founder of Shining Waters, a service group dedicated to cleaning up the shoreline and removing plastic waste from Lake Ontario. Through the college’s Grand Challenges Project: Fresh Water for All, she collaborates with campus partners on a variety of projects, including the We Are Lake Ontario art exhibition that ran in summer 2018 in SUNY Oswego’s downtown art gallery.
“I am guided by the motto: think global; act local,” she said. “I’m working with smart, creative people to develop innovative solutions on a local level, to the global problem of waste and environmental degradation.”