The internet was still in its infancy when SUNY Potsdam Professor Tony Betrus ’93 & ’94 was mapping out his career as a student. And much in the same way that technology advanced over the coming years, Betrus did as well, transitioning from a student at SUNY Potsdam to a professor—all while setting down lasting roots in Potsdam, a place he has called home for more than three decades.
Like the furious pace of dots bouncing around the screen during a retro game of Pong, Betrus quickly graduated from SUNY Potsdam with a bachelor’s degree in math education and a master’s degree in Instructional Technology, before getting a Ph.D. in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. Then in 1997, just three years removed from SUNY Potsdam, he was hired as a full-time faculty member at the College.
“At that time, I was engaged to be married to my wife (SUNY Potsdam alumna Kristen Schneider Betrus ’95) and when I told her the news that I got the job at Potsdam, she literally jumped up in my arms. It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen,” Betrus said. “It was quite an exciting time to come back to Potsdam. I turned 26 years old, got married in August and started my job a month later, so that was a pretty interesting year.”
For more than two decades, Betrus has continued to have a positive impact on his students, promoted a passion for learning, and emphasized the importance of technology. His dedication to education runs in the family. His wife, Kristen, mother Barbara Betrus '91, and brothers Ryan '95 & '02 and Jon Betrus '97 & '01 all received their degrees from SUNY Potsdam and transitioned to careers as teachers—proving that there’s something special when you set foot on the campus.
“The essence of what has kept me here is that everybody is nice to each other—and I don’t think that’s the case everywhere,” he said. “That’s why I’ve stayed over the years. I owe everything to Potsdam.”
In addition to teaching his classes, and finishing his dissertation during his early years on campus, he also worked as the assistant coach on the Potsdam Bears men’s soccer team, a leadership role that he gravitated toward after playing on the soccer team as an undergraduate student. “I do owe a lot to SUNY Potsdam Athletics. I really enjoyed the time that I had on the soccer team,” he said.
Now with more than two decades of teaching under his belt, Betrus has worked in four different departments on campus, and currently leads graduate level courses in the Department of Business Administration as a full professor and assistant department chair. His passion for learning alongside his students has been the most rewarding aspect of his career. “I always tell my students, ‘I will learn as much from you as you learn from me, but the most important thing that I teach you is to have a love for learning,’” Betrus stated. “I find it super rewarding to teach grad students and learn with them.”
His significant work under the technology umbrella has also focused on video gaming, one of his passions from his youth. For the past 10 years he has been the advisor for the SUNY Potsdam gaming club, and then in 2018 he started SUNY Potsdam’s Esports Club. “I’ve played video games my whole life. When I say my whole life, I’m talking Atari back in 1980 when I was nine years old,” he recalled.
His extensive background in technology education, longtime affinity for video gaming, and interest in changing perceptions about gaming, led him to establish SUNY Potsdam’s Esports Club. “There’s this whole generation of people who just look at it as it’s a waste of time,” Betrus said. “And so, when Esports came around and I heard all this same language again resurfacing about how it’s a waste of time, I’m like, ‘You know what, I’m going to put my foot down.’ That was what the TED talk was, that was me saying ‘Enough, you old Boomers.’”
In 2019, Betrus joined 11 other presenters on stage during SUNY Potsdam’s first ever TEDx event, where he argued that Esports is as much a sport as any traditional sport. “Your mechanics have to be flawless, you have to have teamwork, and then finally, you have to have improvisation,” Betrus said on stage. “If I had to sum up why Esports is a real sport, I’d say ‘[gamers have] the reflexes of an NHL hockey goalie, the touch of a fly fisherman, and the mind of a jazz musician.’ And you add those together and you have something creative and special.”
As an educator, one of the most exciting aspects of Esports for Betrus is that it prepares students for careers in STEM fields, teaching them skills related to numerous technology fields including computer science, graphics and media design, and software engineering. Now with more than 40 members, the Esports Club continues to grow and develop a culture of inclusiveness on campus.
For the past decade Betrus has simultaneously been making significant strides to improve digital literacy. With the help of his students, he has produced several versions of a digital literacy course that is being taught in India, around the U.S., and right on campus to SUNY Potsdam’s teacher education students. “We’re not teaching people how to use Excel or PowerPoint or anything like that. It’s more the fundamentals of how the internet works, how applications work, and how data privacy works,” Betrus explained. “It’s almost like phonics if you will. A foundation for reading is phonics and this is like a foundation for using digital technology.”
Through a partnership with the National Education Foundation (NEF), Betrus and his students have received numerous grants to support their work. In 2014, their newly developed course was taught to 4,517 students in the U.S. Virgin Islands by one of Betrus’ students, Marshall Hughes ’10 & ’12. Since then, second and third iterations of the course have been created by Betrus and his students. The newest version is being offered for free through the creative commons license, which is hosted at Teachable.com. “We think that this course really provides a grounded fundamental understanding of how technology works and that it’s a necessary first step,” Betrus said.
Whether he's teaching graduate level courses, working with students in the Esports Club, or spearheading digital literacy initiatives, Betrus continues to be a source of inspiration for his students and foster a life-long passion for learning.
To learn more about the Department of Business Administration, visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/SOEPS/BusinessAdmin
Article and photos by Jason Hunter