When Holly Truitt was 8, her mother died. At 14, her father chose to neglect fatherhood.
Although she wasn’t the first in her family to graduate from college, neither of her parents did. Now, she’s the director of the University of Montana spectrUM Discovery Area, where she focuses on closing opportunity and achievement gaps to help kids succeed in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
“It was my community rallying around me and it was my family, including my stepmother, really being there for me and it was organizations like spectrUM … that provided me a space to explore and to be a kid and to really find a love of learning,” Truitt said. “And so that piece of our mission feels particularly critical not only on a community level but also on a personal level.”
Originally, Truitt studied anthropology at the University of Montana, where she transferred from Simmons College.
After earning her undergraduate degree, she worked on a grant through the university to help bring researchers to Missoula from larger research hubs to work in labs here and was inspired to go back to school herself.
Her master’s work in environmental studies focused on public health and social marketing. Through her thesis work, she was able to garner enough support for a new city ordinance requiring that buildings undergo asbestos inspections.
But before she could delve too far into changing policy around public health, she heard that funding had come through for a new science museum that she had helped do some initial planning toward.
“And to be honest, I got a crush on the project,” Truitt said, adding that it was clear the community was excited about the prospect of a hands-on science museum.
Planning began in the fall of 2005 and Truitt found herself visiting museums across the country while pulling together community support for the project here.
“I thought it would be just a short-term project … but it’s actually been, I think, a labor of love,” she said.
When spectrUM opened its doors on UM’s campus in 2007, Truitt and others already were planning for how to expand it to an off-campus location.
Last fall, spectrUM opened its doors on Front Street with expanded space and exhibits.
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“It was just magical,” Truitt said about the day, tears welling in her eyes.
SpectrUM works to close opportunity and achievement gaps for kids, inspiring them about STEM and higher education.
“And also ensuring that this next generation of Montanans can have fruitful, productive lives that include a meaningful career that’s beneficial to them as well as to their community,” Truitt said.
While Truitt said it’s hard to imagine not being at spectrUM, she added she would be interested in working on national projects. In the coming year, she’ll begin on a part-time appointment with the university and will focus in part on collaboratively developing a strategy to harness the power of the university’s diverse K-12 community engagement efforts to better leverage resources, assist with recruitment efforts, and maximize the institution’s ongoing efforts to close traditional knowledge, opportunity and achievement gaps in Montana.
Part of her time also is taken up with volunteer work with various UM working groups and as a member of the Clark Fork Coalition and Montana Cancer Institute Foundation boards. She also recently participated in a Noyce Leadership Fellowship program through the Robert Noyce Foundation.
“My very favorite thing to do is to hang out with my husband Reed and my boy Finn, because they are two of my favorite people on Earth,” she added.
To make sure she has some time to enjoy their company, she focuses on a few strategic things at work and knows her limits, she said.
“I think there are some days when family needs to be first, and that’s the way it is. And there are some days when spectrUM needs to be first and that’s the way it is,” she said.
Social marketing remains a passion for Truitt, who has taught courses on it at UM in the past and who continues to do consulting work.
Her advice to others: Don’t be afraid to fail, and let community coalitions help co-create.
“It’s never simple,” she said. “And I think that’s OK. I think that’s part of the elegance of it.”