What had she done to deserve her good fortune? She volunteered as a tutor in a tough inner-city neighborhood and by the ninth grade decided to dedicate her life to teaching.
Decades later, Kanter still struggles daily with the inequalities she notices all around her.
But now, as chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, she is in a position to address some of those disparities.
And with an energy and enthusiasm colleagues describe as "boundless," she networks across Silicon Valley and throughout California to extend educational access to people from all levels of society.
By working to create such access she believes she can begin to attack some of the problems of poverty and inequality that have vexed her since her youth when, at 16, she ran away from home briefly and lived as a panhandler to try to understand what life was like for others.
The Foothill and De Anza campuses attract a wide array of students: higher-income teens from Palo Alto looking to transfer to a UC, low-income immigrants from San Jose who can't afford textbooks and just about everyone in between, of all ages and life stages.
With 44,000 (35,000 full-time-equivalent) students, the enrollment of Foothill-De Anza dwarfs that of Stanford University, San Jose State University and even University of California, Berkeley.
"We educate students from all walks of life," Kanter said in an interview in her office on the Foothill campus.
"We have a large group right out of high school. We have immigrants who have little education and people on the fast track who just need two years before going on to a university.
"We have the lifelong learner who may be 75 sitting next to the millennial kid fresh out of high school and completely wired; the 40-year-old single parent seeking her first degree; and the gen-Xers in their late 20s using iPods.
"We are the democratic institution trying to keep fees affordable."
At $13 per quarter unit, Foothill-De Anza fees indeed are the most affordable around — far lower than those of the University of California or California State University systems. But California state funding per community college student is also substantially lower — a quarter of what the UCs receive to educate a freshman, and a third of what the state universities get.
To augment state support, Kanter focuses on reaching out to business leaders and philanthropists, explaining the role of her institutions in supplying critically needed nurses, dental hygienists, software developers, pharmacy assistants and all kinds of technicians to Silicon Valley's workforce, as well as offering a path to four-year universities to thousands of students.
Many of those efforts have paid off: The nonprofit Foothill-DeAnza Foundation raises millions of dollars a year in private donations.
Silicon Valley philanthropists Steve and Michelle Kirsch donated $2 million to create De Anza's Kirsch Center for Environmental Studies, which offers a degree in environmental stewardship.
Former Applied Materials CEO Jim Morgan and his wife, former State Sen. Becky Morgan (a long-ago member of the Palo Alto school board), contributed $3 million to endow the Morgan Family Chair in Environmental Studies — the first endowed chair in the community college system.
"Martha is forward-thinking, innovative and very high-energy," Becky Morgan said.
"Jim and I have a saying that we like to help people reach their potential, and I think Martha is one of those people who does that for many others."
Joe Pinto, a senior vice president of Cisco Systems, has supported Kanter's programs with Cisco equipment and curriculum planning know-how since the early 1990s.
"Martha's very practical, and she does a great job of living on both worlds — the world of education and the world of business," Pinto said of Kanter's networking finesse. "It's very easy to support a person who understands both of those worlds.
"She's a person who really moves the needle. With her energy and enthusiasm she converts the vision of training, educating and improving the lives of students into result. By results I mean students graduating, going into the workforce or on to four-year colleges and getting hired into Silicon Valley, or workers going back to get retrained," said Pinto, who readily acknowledges his own graduation from a community college before earning a university degree.
Kanter began her career in special education, earned a doctorate in 1989 and, working in various policy and administrative positions, became known as a leader in statewide and national community-college circles. She was president of the De Anza campus for 10 years before being named chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza district in 2003.
In the course of a day she may confer with legislators in Sacramento, dine with a high-tech CEO and counsel a financially struggling student.
But her heart is with the student.
"We have all these students and all these stories," she said wistfully.
A girl from East San Jose who did poorly in high school "aced" De Anza, transferred to Columbia University to study math and physics and is now in an astrophysics doctoral program.
When a Foothill graduate won a partial scholarship to Cornell University Kanter introduced him to local Cornell alumni who might be willing to subsidize the rest of his costs.
A young Latino man who barely graduated from high school began to appreciate his immigrant parents' sacrifices once he reached Foothill, where he excelled. He transferred to UC Berkeley last fall.
At opening-day ceremonies last fall, Kanter implored an assembly of faculty and staff to reach out and connect with students, reminding them of "the importance of faculty telling students that they can and will achieve."
"We've got an achievement gap — especially among students from certain ethnic and cultural groups [who] haven't had the opportunities of many of us in this room — that's wider than ever, and it's really urgent that we close it," Kanter told the crowd of hundreds.
"We have no time to lose because the stakes are incredibly high. And you, the faculty, are the key to their success."
It is that achievement gap — and its potentially dire consequences for the individuals, the state and society as a whole — that keeps Kanter awake at night.
"The income gap is widening between the haves and the have-nots, and this concerns me enormously," she said. "California will be 50 percent Hispanic by 2050. Closing the gap for Hispanics and African-Americans to enter and complete higher education will be essential for a humanitarian society and economic prosperity."
The economic disparity problem has tormented Kanter, now 59, all her life.
"As a teenager I had a very hard time reconciling the inequities that criss-crossed America, especially living through the Boston riots and tutoring children from families barely surviving to make ends meet," she said.
At 16, under a ruse that left her parents thinking she was attending a supervised summer program, Kanter ran away to Los Angeles and spent a summer essentially living on the beach panhandling until the police put her on a plane back to Boston, where her parents welcomed her home with open arms.
"I learned how to live on my own without money," she said of the experience. "I learned that life is tough for many people, especially those who don't have much and are addicted to heavy drugs. I learned to survive, but I never could reconcile the 'haves' and the 'have nots.' Still can't."
Kanter makes it her business to reach out and personally mentor students. Foothill and De Anza both offer programs aimed at students who are struggling:
* Special resources and support are given to student who have grown up in foster care and are now 18 and living on their own.
* Foothill's "Math My Way" and De Anza's "Math Performance Success Program" offer special approaches and support for math-challenged students.
* De Anza's "Learning in Communities" program integrates two or more subjects to create a better and easier understanding of both.
Kanter is a leader in the Open Educational Resources movement, an effort to save students the high cost of textbooks by promoting the creation of free Web-based course materials.
"Martha's a phenomenal people person," former Foothill-De Anza Board Chairman Hal Plotkin said. He has worked closely with Kanter on the Open Educational Resources initiative.
"Usually her door is open, and you'd be amazed at the stream of people coming through her office — former students showing off their newest child or latest artwork, or thanking her for helping on a recommendation or getting a scholarship or an internship.
"It's just this parade of people coming to thank her and show her what she's done. She's as or more accessible than any employee in the district — no airs. She's just there for everyone."
Colleagues say it's not unusual to receive e-mails from Kanter written at 2 a.m. or 6 a.m. She's often one of the last to leave an event because she stays around cleaning up tables.
"Martha is a huge giver, and she makes everyone feel great," Barbara Swensen, a member of the all-volunteer Foothill Commission, which organizes events in support of the college, said of her work with Kanter.
Kanter's service on innumerable nonprofit boards — from Joint Venture Silicon Valley to the National Hispanic University to the Peninsula Open Space Trust — puts her in regular contact with some of Silicon Valley's wealthiest achievers. Honored last year by the American Leadership Forum (along with Adobe Systems co-founder Charles Geschke and former U.S. Congressman and Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta), Kanter used her platform to implore the community leaders in the audience to step to step up their giving.
"We have 120,000 people living in poverty here in Silicon Valley," she said, returning to her familiar, lifelong theme.
"At the same time we have over 70,000 people with a net worth in the millions. It doesn't make sense."
This story contains 1645 words.
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