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Betty P. Smith - Retiree Volunteer Profile

Retiree Volunteer Profile: Betty Smith

Innovative Program Helps Monroe CC’s Betty P. Smith
Regain Independence and Continue to Help Students 

Betty Smith is not your “typical” SUNY retiree. She retired from Monroe Community College’s Brighton, NY campus in July 2014 after a 30-year counseling career that included 16 years as a professor of psychology. Her age when she retired? Eighty (yes, 80) years old.

Betty was an adult learner. She went to college at the age of 46, the mother of three grown children and a son who was in the fifth grade at the time. Smith received her A.S. degree in Liberal Arts from MCC in 1982. She then went to Brockport College. “You get papers back with As and you think they made a mistake; this couldn’t be MY paper!” She soon realized there was no mistake; those high grades were indeed hers. Betty earned a B.A. in Psychology and an M.S. in Higher Education Mental Health Counseling.

Smith ran several workshops on returning adult students at Monroe Community College (MCC). The head of Admissions, who was in charge of the college’s workshop program, told Betty that he’d like to find a way to use her on a professional level.  

“I never planned to work,” Smith said. “We were from that age where the husband provides.” But she was motivated by a passion to help people “find themselves by getting new lives when they felt life was coming to an end,” Betty recalls, such as displaced Kodak and Xerox workers in Rochester.

Smith started her MCC career in 1984, working part-time for two years in the admissions department, counseling students and teaching psychology and inter-personal communications. The timing was perfect. “My kids were grown up, my husband, Chuck, loved me being active doing things; it was great,” she said. Betty became a full-time employee in 1986. In time, she became a full professor.

Betty loved teaching, but she eventually decided to devote herself exclusively to counseling students. Smith worked out of MCC’s Counseling Center and Veteran Services (CCVS) department, helping students ranging from recent high school graduates through adult learners over 50. She assisted her students with various challenges in their personal and academic lives.

Betty also originated and ran a number of workshops for staff, students and peer leaders. She and Anne Hughes, a fellow counselor who she mentored and remains good friends with to this day, received the Innovation of the Year Award for their collaboration in creating the WINS Program, which stood for “Workshops Initiated towards the Needs of Students.” The program also earned Smith and Hughes the SUNY Award for Excellent in Student Services.

In October 2004, Betty, at the age of 70, developed a disease called occult aggressive macular degeneration. “It just happened overnight,” Smith said. “It was quite scary.” Betty eventually became legally blind.  

Despite her vision loss, Smith continued to work full-time counseling students at MCC. “When it first happened, everybody from [then-] President Flynn down to the people that clean the dining rooms and sweep the floors would give me so much confidence and supported me,” Betty said. “That’s what really gets you through the difficult times. I was very lucky to be working at a college like MCC.” That support continued through her retirement and beyond. 

So did the accolades. Smith was inducted into the Monroe Community College Alumni Hall of Fame in 2002. She received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service in 2005. And Betty was inducted into the MCC Sports Hall of Fame (Special Award category) in 2007 for her unwavering attendance at MCC sporting events.

Smith told her husband in March 2014 that she was going to retire. “Chuck said to me, ‘What are you doing that for, Betty?’ because he knew how much I loved my job. I told him I wanted to leave at the top of my game,” she said. “But you get this feeling it’s time, and I wanted to be with him as he was starting to show a little dementia.” Betty’s retirement became official in July 2014.

The following month, the MCC Foundation hosted a homecoming alumni luncheon and golf tournament in Smith’s honor to celebrate her extraordinary career at Monroe Community College and thank her for her dedication and commitment to MCC’s students by raising funds to support the Betty P. Smith Endowed Scholarship for Returning Adult Students. The scholarship was established in 2000 by faculty, staff and friends of Betty and MCC. She presented the first scholarship in 2005.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Which was better – getting the Chancellor’s Award or the endowed scholarship in your name?’ And I said the best thing, besides every day at school, was the scholarship, because there’s so much need today,” Smith said. “To have the SUNY Chancellor give you an award and being in the MCC Hall of Fame and a community that supports you get is great, but to have your colleagues contribute money for a scholarship fund and endow it, I think that’s the best because it goes to other people.”

Undated photo of retired Monroe Community College counselor Betty P. Smith wearing commencement garb, including her Chancellor's Award medallion.

Shortly after Betty retired, Chuck was diagnosed with quick-onset Alzheimer’s. And in March 2015, he passed away. “I was married 61 years and 70 days to a saint who would put up with me,” she said. “I realized I was alone with no one to help me.”

Smith’s physician soon gave her a resource referral for a new, free seven-week program run by the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI) in Rochester, NY called “New Skills, New Vision.” The program, funded by a $2,500 grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, was designed to teach legally blind adults over the age of 55 the tools and techniques needed to live independently. ABVI reached out to Smith twice to ask if she would enroll in New Skills, New Vision. “I was very ambivalent,” she said. “It’s hard to admit that you have a fault.”  

Betty eventually agreed to participate in the program. “I had to practice what I preached about asking for help. ‘How can I help you?’ was the first thing I’d say to my students and we would find a way to get them what they needed to be successful,” she said. Taking that leap of faith with the staff of ABVI – letting them help her – paid off. “It helped me continue with my life.”  

A vision rehabilitation therapist worked with program participants to help them care for themselves and their families. The Excellus BCBS grant helped participants access transportation to and from ABVI and acquire certain tools, including a thermometer that audibly says the temperature. They were introduced to other products that make life a little easier and safer, including a speaking watch, a phone with large dialing buttons and an enlarged pill box.  

“I consider myself a gourmet cook and I love baking,” Betty said. “They helped me to use my oven, how to put pans in and out – little, simple things – like when you go back to teaching your children the dos and don’ts. I have a lot of don’ts, so I’m still able to do my thing. You know all this, but they teach you how to do it right, such as slicing a tomato.”

“All I have to do is make just one mistake and I could end up in assisted living,” Smith said. “I learned how to transform my house to make it really safe for me so I can stay here. I had a bathroom put in because I had to move downstairs [since] I have three floors. I have stripes on my stairs – that just doesn’t go with my décor – but it helped me get through that.” Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kclWHYcqo48 to view a video on how Betty learned to live independently in her home.

One thing that hasn’t changed: “I have a beautiful English garden. I've lived here a long time. I planted every tree, every bush, so I know where everything is,” the Pittsford, NY resident said. “I still go out in my garden every day.” In fact, Betty revealed that she was watering her garden during her interview with the SUNY Retirees Newsletter with the help of a talking timer.

“[ABVI and the New Skills, New Vision program] really gave me confidence and peace of mind that hey, I can do this!” Smith said. “They are really kind, compassionate people. My only regret is that I wish I had taken advantage of [their services] sooner,” Betty added. “I was trying to survive and thrive on my own. But I needed help in finding out how because ‘can’t’ has never been in my vocabulary.”

Smith gained so much self-confidence with the help of her training at ABVI that she returned to Monroe Community college as a volunteer for the fall 2015 semester. The MCC Counseling Center and Veteran Services – her former office – asked her to come back. But Betty opted to work in the Student Support Services Program, a unit of MCC’s Academic Support Services Department, instead, saying “I love my old office, but you can’t go home again. So you need to go someplace else and grow.” 

Every Tuesday during the school year, Betty serves as a mentor, counselor, coach and workshop presenter – the same duties she performed during her 30-year MCC career, only in a different department, which serves students who have identified themselves as first-generation, economically disadvantaged, educationally disadvantaged, learning or physically disabled, and non-native English-speaking. 

Smith said that most people don’t realize she’s legally blind. “I’ve trained myself not to look at them peripherally [and to] make sure I’m always looking them in the face. But I don’t hide it,” she stressed. If her condition comes up, she addresses it. “Sometimes I work with students with disabilities. I’ll say, ‘You know, I have a disability.’ And you find out the disclosure is an advantage for the both of us.”

The Oklahoma native maintains a busy schedule when she volunteers at MCC. “I see students from 9:00 to 12:00 and I have lunch from 12 to 1. I come back at 1:00 and I’m out of the office by 4:00,” Smith said. “It’s a full day. I’m tired when I go home, but it’s a good tired.” The director of Advising and Graduation Services (a friend and neighbor of hers), drives Betty to work, and one of Counseling Center’s senior advisors (a good friend and former student) brings her home. But when she’s on duty, Betty finds her way on her own since she knows the MCC Brighton campus like the back of her hand.

Smith often sees colleagues from her old office, such as Anne Hughes or Mark Basinski. She thinks the world of them. “Anne and Mark have given me a lot of laughter and joy and we learned together,” Betty said. “They’re gifts – the people who come into your life.”

Betty feels right at home in her new unit and with her new colleagues and new boss, Patricia Kennedy, Director of Academic Support Services. “[Pat] makes me feel good about my volunteerism. I feel like I’m doing a service,” Smith said. “I’m not treated like ‘You’re a volunteer just putting in your time.’ That’s not the type of person Pat is. At work, she expects me to deliver to my students. I value that,” she added.  

“I’m very blessed,” Betty said. She affectionately refers to the students she counsels as “my kids” and “my children,” and says “For me, it’s such a gift. I can’t imagine not being able to do this.” She added, “You don’t have to have vision to be a visionary. I really believe that.”  

Smith has some advice for SUNY retirees thinking about volunteering on their campus. “I think they just need to do it,” she said. “There are so many students that need to be in contact with our generation or the younger generation of retirees. You’ve always got something to give a student. Sometimes it’s your expertise or just your presence, because what you’re saying is ‘You matter, I care about you.’”

Monroe CC retiree Betty P. Smith demonstrating how she puts away her fine china in spite of being legally blind. She also returned to MCC as a volunteer, counseling students as she had for 30 years. The 82-year-old retired in 2014 at the age of 80.

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