Possibility Scholar, Black Student Union president, executive board member for the ALANA Student Leadership Conference (Sept. 21 to 29) with a demanding major in zoology and minor in psychology, Tenaja Smith-Butler balances her classes, research and active campus life that included winning Oswego’s 2018 Northern New York Library Network Outstanding Student Employee award.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in the Bronx. I was raised, when I was younger, in South Carolina, Florida, a little bit in Tennessee. I have lived in the Bronx since I was 9, until I came up here. For high school, I went to Archimedes Academy for Math, Science and Technology in the South Bronx.

Why did you choose SUNY Oswego?

I applied to Oswego because it was the only SUNY school that offered zoology or, really, any animal-related major, unless you count Cornell. Other schools weren't offering me much money. I am a Possibility Scholar here. I called the person who had emailed me about it, and they explained that it was basically a full ride -- my housing, books, tuition, everything. That was my and my mom's dream. Possibility Scholars have to remain a STEM major, live on campus and write reports about our research and study-abroad experiences.

How did you become interested in zoology?

I can tell you the exact moment, but I can't remember how old I was at all. I was in class and my teacher handed out these Scholastic magazines. We were reading an article about a wildlife biologist, and the woman had gone to some foreign country and was working with tigers. I said, "I didn't know that was a job. That's so cool. She gets to travel and work with these cool animals!" I told my mom and my siblings and everybody I wanted to be a wildlife biologist when I grew up.

Did you immediately become involved here with the BSU?

I knew coming in that I wanted to join the Black Student Union. I knew that I was coming to a predominantly white institution, but that there would be resources for me to go to on campus. I went to the (Student) Involvement Fair and I found their table. I went to their first meeting that Wednesday. It was packed! 

When did you become involved with the ALANA executive board?

In my junior year, I signed up to be a committee member and helped with the planning and execution of Black History Month activities. For senior year, I was definitely interested in running for president. The president at the time, Keonna Wren, even said, "You're going to have to be president." After one of the events for Black History Month last semester, one of our alumni had come up, Justin Brantley. I was talking with him about officers for next year. Someone was like, "Oh, yeah, she's running for president." I said, "Y'all keep saying that, but I'm not quite sure." Justin said something like, "Why not? I think that you're the perfect candidate." I'm a zoology major, so I have labs and heavy reports to do. I don't like to say I'm going to do something if I don't have the time to do it. But that conversation and others I had with alumni and people on the e-board kept me in. As we got closer to elections, I was the only one interested. 

What do you do as BSU president and an ALANA e-board member?

It is a lot of having to schedule and attend meetings, especially because we're preparing for ALANA. Even after preparations for ALANA, we'll still have weekly e-board meetings and prepare for other events and programs we have coming up, like basketball tournaments and other collaborations outside of the ALANA conference. I've been balancing (schoolwork) so far. My job so far is working with our executive board and making sure we're all working together toward our goals, meeting with people like Maggie (Rivera) and others on campus we may want to collaborate with.

Do you have ideas for putting your own stamp on BSU?

As we were cleaning out the office at the end of last semester, we came across a scrapbook from 1998-99. I was born in 1997! So it was crazy for me to see stuff like that. We have a picture of what looks like a basketball tournament from 1983. You can see we have a lot of documents, posters of past Black History Month and things about BSU's dinners and their events for the year. As part of ALANA week, we're having alumnus Aunree Houston (a 1991 graduate) come up. We found information about the productions that he put on during the time he was here. Having Howard Gordon (now retired as executive assistant to the college president and 1973 alumnus, master's '74) tell us about when the BSU had to go in to an SA (Student Association) meeting and demand funding to enable them to do something for the first Black History Month -- well, it was only a week at the time. There's just so much that current students don't know about or haven't heard of about the students of color that came here before us. At Return to Oz, a reunion of students of color that graduated from here, we hope to collect stories and pictures from people. I want to record that history in a way that it can reach our current members and future students.

What do you like most about SUNY Oswego?

I would say the community I've been able to involve myself in here. Coming from New York City to Oswego, New York, is a very different environment. (Laughs.) I thought I might be uncomfortable going places and I would say to myself, "OK, I'm just going to stay in my room." But there is a surprising amount of diversity here, especially if you know about the things that ALANA does and the different organizations. 

What do you think of your mentors and other professors here at Oswego?

The campus isn't that big, but I kind of just assumed the professors would be distracted having so many students that they wouldn't pay any attention to me, that I would have to really fight to do research with someone. But it really isn't that way. It's easy to develop such a relationship here with a professor, as long as you actively pursue that relationship, whether via email or stopping by their office. They're usually pretty open to talking, whether it's about a course or asking questions about work they're passionate about. All of the advisors I've had here have been great. Sophia Windstam was my academic advisor for my major, and now Maria Sagot is filling that role. My mentor for the scholarship is Tim Braun. He was instrumental in my getting to do the research that I did this year.

What was the research opportunity about?

Last year, I went with Dr. Sagot to Costa Rica to do bat research. I really enjoyed it.

What research did you do this summer?

We presented our (Costa Rica) findings at Oswego, but there's also the North American Symposium on Bat Research. While we were there last October, my research partner Cayla Turner and I presented our (scholarly) poster. For these people (at the conference) -- bats are probably what they've been doing for a very long time in their lives. We were scared and nervous at first, but these people were really welcoming. They complimented our poster and asked us questions and we had great mentors while we were there. At that conference, Dr. Sagot was telling everyone I was interested in doing research. Professor (Tigga) Kingston is renowned for her work on bats in Southeast Asia. Once we got back from conference, she let Dr. Sagot know they were going to do this research in Borneo. I  needed a rabies vaccination to make sure that I'd be on (the) license to do bat research, because bats can carry rabies. It's very expensive. Tim (Braun) was able to find a way for me to get the vaccination. A lot of things lined up really perfectly!

What was most memorable about your experience in Borneo?

In New York state, I think we have eight species of bats. Borneo was a super hotspot for diversity, particularly bat diversity. We found 24 species within our study area … and we didn't even catch everything. Some bats fly super high, so you're never going to catch them without special equipment. We did a survey -- we just wanted to know what species were in our area of old rubber trees and cut bamboo and in forests in a privately owned protected forest and a national park.

What other things have you been involved in on campus?

Last year, I was secretary and acting vice president of the Maker Club. I'm their senior advisor this year. They're basically dedicated to any and every sort of craft. I also work in Penfield Library's Makerspace. As the Makerspace assistant, I give 3D printer trainings -- we have two machines and help out with any projects people come in with. I help create prints. We have knitting and sewing supplies and a knitting machine. We have a tool wall -- hammers and glue guns and stuff like that. We have lots of things for paper crafts. We have circuitry kits. We have a button maker -- people love making buttons so much. (Laughs.) I'm also a member of the Storytellers Guild on campus.

What do you do in your spare time?

If I do have time during the semester, which is pretty rare, I like to play video games. I also like to read. Usually when it gets a little colder and I have to start making Christmas gifts, I love to crochet. This year, I know there are soap-making kits you can buy, so I plan on getting into that. It would make cute little gifts for my family and some friends. I make a lot of my own products for my skin and my hair. I use African black soap and hot water and oils to moisturize. Recently, my roommate and I have gotten more into cooking and baking.

What can you tell us about your family?

At the end of this year, I'm going to be living with my father and that side of the family. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers on that side. I've lived with my mother and two older brothers and my younger sister for most of my life. My Mom is a teacher at a day care. My father works for the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority).