LLI Spotlight: Julie Martenson, Ph.D., OLLI Director, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Texas at Austin

By Peter Spiers

Julie Martenson joined OLLI at The University of Texas in 2015. The OLLI @ UT has 1,914 total members and uniquely among OLLIs and LLIs has five separate and distinct programs —each with its own membership — under the larger OLLI umbrella.
What do you consider your top 3-5 responsibilities at OLLI? The advantage of our decentralized program structure is that our members can find more intimate social engagement and make strong friendships in a small group that would be more difficult if we were one large program with nearly 2,000 members. Each of our five programs not only has its own membership but also its own personality and culture, and members are so fiercely loyal to their program that there’s even a little competition between them. From an administrative point of view it’s unwieldy, and so far I’ve been focusing on working to introduce more universal processes that go beyond just encouraging each program to follow a set of best practices. We’ve pulled together volunteer leadership from each program to draft a “foundation document” containing rules for the governance and use of each program’s Excellence Fund — member-raised funds for expenses not covered by regular operational funds like grants awarded to university departments or buying wine for guests at social events. That document has been completed and submitted to the membership for comment.

What did you do before you came to OLLI?

I worked in interpretive planning and endangered species protection for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before taking a job at Texas Tech University coordinating the academic programs for non-traditional students who were returning to school mid-career or after a long break, where I split my time between campus operations and student services. I came to admire the sacrifice these students and often their families were making. It’s easy for students to get derailed in this situation and I spent a lot of time encouraging them to stick with it.

That was my introduction to lifelong learning and good preparation for working at OLLI, where having a sense of humor and remaining flexible are important.

What are some favorite courses you offer?

Many of our popular courses are devoted to subjects with local interest. A recent course like this was planned and facilitated by one of our volunteers to debate and discuss a local transportation bond.

Tell me about a member or members who has or have made a significant contribution to the OLLI’s success?

We have a lot of dedicated volunteers that make the organization work. Our website, for example, was built by a UT employee but languished when that employee left. The website was limping along without any maintenance or improvement until two members — Terry Blankenship and Brian Watts — stepped up and took ownership of it. Terry serves as liaison between member leadership and the university’s IT staff, which does the actual coding, and Brian has a “0 appointment” on the IT staff — no pay, but with university clearances and privileges. As a reward, they get their own parking spaces, and that’s gold here in Austin!
What developments do you see in the future for OLLI or the Lifelong Learning Movement more broadly?
Austin is becoming a very congested city and the traffic is really starting to impact our members’ lives as it does the lives of all Austinites. In part because of this, but also because of interest in learning from experts unable to teach on campus, I’m starting to get questions from people about how Internet learning might be facilitated by the OLLI.

What was your formal education?

I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in elementary education, and a doctorate in forest economics with a focus on endangered species protection, both from Stephen F. Austin State University.

Is there another LLI you admire and have learned something from?

I’ve learned a lot by attending conferences like the Southeast Regional Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. The “Base Camp” discussion board curated by the Osher National Resource Center has also been a helpful resource. We were creating a handbook, for example, and instead of having to start from scratch, I was able to get handbooks from other OLLIs after putting the question on Base Camp.

Is there a book you’ve read for pleasure recently that you would recommend to others?

I’m reading “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” or at least I was until I loaned it to one of our members! I heard the author interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. It sounded fascinating and I had to rush out and buy it.

Is there a place you would love to travel to?

As you might expect from someone with a forestry degree, I love the mountains and lived in the Rockies for many years. I’d love to hike the Appalachian Trail.