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USC Marshall Alumnus Expands Educational Horizons in his Community

USC Marshall Alumnus Expands Educational Horizons in his Community

Inspired by his experience at USC Marshall, Lester Kaneta ’72 now creates pathways to success for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students.

Asian female and male standing in fron tof library book shelves

Marian and Lester Kaneta ’72
[Photo courtesy of the Kaneta Foundation]

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As an international business leader, alumnus Lester Kaneta ’72 came face-to-face with some of the world’s greatest wonders. His travels also highlighted another reality — the formidable challenges of extreme poverty. His wife Marian also witnessed these hardships as a nurse, and both were all too familiar with the challenges many face in their home state of Hawaii.

“The Hawaiian community has faced historical adversities, including population decline, displacement, and cultural assimilation, resulting in many falling to the lower echelons of the socioeconomic ladder,” Kaneta explained.

Together, they vowed to help those who lack education, financial literacy, peer support, and other economic disadvantages. The mentors, guidance, and opportunities Kaneta received at USC Marshall inspired him to give back, laying the groundwork for him to achieve these goals.

Kaneta grew up in Honolulu, Oahu, where he met Marian, his wife of 52 years. He attended Marshall for four years, graduating with a business degree with an emphasis in accounting, before returning home.

After initially studying political science, Kaneta credits his undergraduate roommate and Marshall alum, Jim Mainland ’72 MBA ’88, for introducing him to accounting, where he would find his passion and business success.

Kaneta credits two Marshall professors for shaping his career trajectory — Professor Hill who provided a pivotal academic experience through his course Accounting 101; and Professor Jack Larsen who “truly ignited” his passion.

After graduating, Kaneta worked with Touche Ross, now Deloitte Touche, a Big Eight accounting firm, before he ventured into business for himself.

Throughout his career, Kaneta traveled around the globe — from China, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia to India, Pakistan, Egypt, and beyond. During his trips abroad, Kaneta felt called to give back.

The impact of this program is remarkable. We endeavor to provide our students with a sense of family and community, and they thrive as a result.

— Lester Kaneta ‘72

Founder, The Kaneta Foundation  

In 1999, he and his wife founded the Kaneta Foundation which provides education, human services, as well as community, spiritual, and youth development funding. More than a decade later, in 2011, the Kanetas expanded their reach, directing their attention to addressing housing insecurity and homelessness through a unique approach: education.

They identified a need for a program specifically tailored to individuals who had never considered college due to financial and other barriers. In 2012, in partnership with Kapiʻolani Community College in Honolulu and the University of Hawaiʻi Foundation, the Lunalilo Scholars Program was born. The initiative was built on four pillars: academic achievement, peer mentoring, career planning, and financial literacy.

“Most of us have plans to go to college from a very young age. It is ingrained in us through our parents, teachers, friends, and relatives,” Kaneta said. “But there are many folks who do not receive this kind of support. They are told that they lack the funding, or that they are not smart enough, or that they ‘just don’t have what it takes.’”

The Kanetas are helping to change this narrative, one student at a time. The Lunalilo Scholars Program collaborates with guidance counselors and other agencies to reach underserved communities and provide wraparound support services.

While the average Lunalilo Scholar is 21-years-old, the program has welcomed individuals up to the age of 68. Approximately 53% of program participants are Native Hawaiian and 17% are of Pacific Islander descent.

“Many enter the program with little more than a strong work ethic and a desire to succeed — some even facing the risk of homelessness or being trapped in low-paying jobs with limited prospects for advancement,” according to Kaneta.

Once admitted into the program, the Lunalilo Scholars experience a transformation.

“They gain confidence, find peer support, and acquire essential skills,” Kaneta said. “They begin to envision a brighter future, realizing they can break the cycle of poverty, discover their purpose, and contribute positively to their community.”

Lunalilo Scholars demonstrate higher rates of re-enrollment and persistence into their second year of college than other students. They also achieve better grades and have higher graduation and transfer rates within the University of Hawai’i system.

“The impact of this program is remarkable,” Kaneta said. “We endeavor to provide our students with a sense of family and community, and they thrive as a result.”

Since its founding, more than 800 students have received support while attending college, and 31% of Lunalilo Scholars have been the first in their families to attend college.

“Many of these students experienced tumultuous journeys, marked by stops, starts, and neglect. Through their participation in the program, they have begun to cultivate confidence, envision hope, and take tangible steps toward breaking the cycle of poverty,” Kaneta said.