Career Path to Executive Director of College Promise Campaign

Posted by Ronald | May 14, 2017  |  No Comment

Dr. Martha J. Kanter is executive director of the College Promise Campaign. Kanter earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Brandeis University, a Master of Education with a concentration in Clinical Psychology and Public Practice from Harvard University and a Doctor of Education in Organization and Leadership from the University of San Francisco. The College Promise Campaign is a national, non-partisan initiative to build broad public support for funding the first two years of higher education for hard-working students, starting in America’s community colleges. An excerpt of the interview with Kanter follows:

What career path led to your profession of executive director, College Promise Campaign?

My career path was not linear, but evolved through opportunities that I pursued and risks that I took, never being sure of what would unfold. In high school, I volunteered at the South End House in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a community center that helped low-income families build financial and educational capacities. My job was to teach reading to third graders in its after-school program. I will never forget how my students’ eyes lit up when they read perfect paragraphs aloud to the other students. We might call it student engagement in learning today, or we might say it was the supportive teaching environment that caused these students to risk making mistakes in front of others, or we might say it was student-centered teaching. No matter how we interpret or label student achievement and academic success in general, it was these early experiences that caused me to fall in love with education and believe in its power to change lives for the better. At the same time, I had a role model in the South End House, its executive director Mel King, an activist, author and renowned community leader who decades ago wrote Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development. Mel’s guidance at the same time I was taking U.S. and World History in high school helped frame what has generated my lifelong commitment to equity and social justice.

I taught high school English and Social Studies. I set up one of the first Learning Disabilities programs in California’s community colleges. I helped nonprofits by serving on their boards. I wrote books. I became a dean, a vice president, and a vice chancellor for policy and research at the state level in California. Somehow, I managed to earn my master’s and doctoral degrees while working full-time along the way. I found myself looking back on 16 years as president and then chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District when I said ‘yes’ to Secretary Arne Duncan and became the U.S. Under Secretary of Education for the Obama Administration. Through all of these career opportunities, “College for All” drove my passion and that’s why we launched the College Promise Campaign ( two years ago. I want every American to have the opportunity to graduate from a high quality two or four year college or university. Fifty years ago, a high school diploma was enough to earn a family-sustaining wage and lead a middle class life. College was free or very low cost for Americans who sought a further education beyond high school. Today, education beyond high school is essential, whether it’s a postsecondary degree or certificate.

What educational background and/or professional training are essential for this profession?

The profession of education has many dimensions, but to be an executive director of a non-profit, you need to acquire the knowledge and skills drawn from education, business and government. College and university degrees are important to have, but make sure you go to high quality institutions with great professors who will help you grow. You should have some management, fundraising, audit and evaluation skills. You should know how to hire and evaluate quality staff to drive your organization forward. And you must have an unwavering commitment to diversity, social inclusion and justice for all. Look for people, universities, government and nonprofit organizations who can help you acquire this critical knowledge. But, they can’t give you passion.

What influenced you to pursue a career in your profession?

High school teachers like Ms. Leverich who told us we had to compete every day to sit in the front row of her class and raise our hands in unison to be ready to answer every question she asked made a profound impression on me. My college professor Dr. Abraham Maslow came into class one day after meeting Gloria Steinem and told us that he now believed women could become self-actualized. Master Liang taught me Tai Chi. My dissertation chair Dr. Susan Evans gave me the opportunity to teach advanced statistics to her graduate students and painstakingly took me through the discriminant function analysis that became the heart of my dissertation research. These teachers and mentors helped shape my professional career. They were a sounding board for the decisions I faced at various crossroads in my life. And the insights they gave me stay with me to this day. When I couple that with the fact that I grew up with President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Mahatma Gandhi, and John Gardner, the combination of these global thought leaders influenced my tireless resolve to open the doors of higher education to as many people as we can.

What professional, civic or community organization do you belong?

Civic engagement in the life of our communities, regions, states, nation and world is evermore critical to our future. I serve on several boards whose nonprofit organizations are dedicated to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness through education and asset building. I play a role in rescuing scholars from war-torn countries. I help increase children’s savings accounts for low-income families. I advise on national and international assessments to help people build their knowledge and skills to move up the opportunity ladder throughout their lives. I also contribute to advancing civic learning and engagement in American higher education.

What advice do you give to students who desire to pursue a career as executive director for a dynamic organization?

Volunteer to serve on a nonprofit board that demonstrates the values and interests that you want to pursue as your life unfolds. Make sure you volunteer for a working board where you’ll have a committee assignment and opportunities to participate in events, audits, fundraising, outreach and policy discussions. Shadow some executive directors, spend time in their organizations, get to know their staff and how they accomplish their mission and goals, especially how they evaluate their progress and their individual and group contributions.

What is your typical work schedule?

I work most of the time. When you love your work, it becomes part of who you are. I do take vacations periodically. I do try to exercise several times a week, and – most importantly – I do make the time for the people and organizations I love and admire.




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