Kathleen and Mark Santora are supercommuters.
They may live in Silicon Valley, but there’s a special place in their hearts for UCI. And that means they’re in Orange County often. It’s not because they want to keep an eye on their college-age children. Yes, at one time, they shuttled south to see Kevin and Kristen, who were Anteaters. But the younger one, Kristen, graduated five years ago; Kevin graduated nearly a decade ago. Both now work in high-tech in the Bay Area.
So why are the Santoras still drawn to the school?
“There’s always something happening at UCI. We come for soccer games, winter basketball and spring baseball,” Kathleen Santora says. “We toured the Esports Arena recently, which was fascinating. We go to events at the Cove innovation center and to Shakespearean plays. There’s just so much going on.”
What she doesn’t mention is the role she and her husband play as mentors, activists and philanthropists.
They are the ultimate UCI parents – engaged, involved, and happy to share their talents and resources with the school and its students even though their own children moved on long ago.
Among their commitments, they are members of the UCI Foundation board of trustees, the Undergraduate Success Leadership Advisory Board and the Chancellor’s Club. Mark Santora has also enjoyed interacting with UCI students as a guest lecturer in Professor Michelle Khine’s biomedical engineering class on negotiation skills, which are integral to navigating the complex world of startups.
In addition, the couple gave the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics – where daughter Kristen worked before graduating in 2014 with a degree in business economics – a landmark donation to renovate and expand its strength and conditioning facility, renamed the Santora Elite Training Center.
The five-star, 8,500-square-foot weight room, which opened in fall 2014, offers resistance training, speed development, conditioning and flexibility workouts. It also enables the more effective rehabilitation of injured student-athletes by providing access to non-impact exercise machines and cardiovascular equipment.
The gift evolved through their son’s interest in soccer. Kevin, who graduated in 2010 with a degree in business economics, played on UCI’s Division I soccer team, which in his junior and senior years qualified for the NCAA soccer tournament – the squad’s first appearances in campus history.
“We came down to watch all the games,” Mark Santora recalls. “We noticed that some of the facilities could use a refresher. We thought about what we could do, and the weight room seemed like it would have the greatest impact on student-athletes.”
“Since its opening, the Santora Elite Training Center has been instrumental in the sports performance achievements of our 350 student-athletes,” says Paula Smith, UCI’s interim athletics director, adding that it’s “a place that builds champions.”
David Kniffin, UCI head coach for men’s volleyball, says the facility “has been a game changer. It helps us recruit, retain and prepare our student-athletes for success.”
The Santoras were happy to be able to contribute, they say. “What was once a very tired office building was transformed into a modern, efficient and exciting space,” Mark Santora says. “It’s a very green space incorporating two retractable, 70-foot doors that go up during the day; it almost never needs air conditioning.”
“Our children had a rich and broadening experience at UCI, and my wife and I were extremely grateful and strongly motivated to give back,” he adds.
As a child, Mark Santora moved frequently with his parents. His dad was in the military, and he spent time in Tokyo, Kansas, Florida, California and Utah – where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business, with a computer science emphasis, at Salt Lake City’s Westminster College.
Kathleen Santora grew up in a college town in Pennsylvania; her father served as vice president of academic affairs at West Chester University. “I saw the benefits of my dad’s work with lifelong learners,” she says. “That’s why I believe wholeheartedly in the power of a good education.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Pennsylvania’s Ursinus College. While working at Xerox Corp., she completed an MBA, with an emphasis in organizational behavior, at Temple University.
The couple’s paths crossed in Silicon Valley; she was an early employee of Sun Microsystems when he applied for a position. “I checked his references very closely,” she says, laughing. “He got the job.”
The two were married in 1985, and Kathleen Santora eventually left the workforce to devote more time to raising their children. With them grown, her avocation became helping underserved students compete with their peers. She’s on the board of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District foundation in Los Altos Hills, where she’s working on a project to increase transfer and graduation rates among disadvantaged students.
Mark Santora has worked in the high-tech industry for the past 40 years and currently is chairman of the board for Panzura, a hybrid cloud data management company in Silicon Valley. “I’ve been involved with numerous startups over the years,” he says. “You analyze the people, the technology and the market and make investments of time and capital in the ones that look the most promising.”
“Our children had a rich and broadening experience at UCI, and my wife and I were extremely grateful and strongly motivated to give back.”
The couple is also making an investment in something else that looks promising: UCI.
“Kathleen and I have always wanted to make a difference,” Mark Santora says. “In today’s world, there is an incredible amount of need and opportunity to give.”
His wife adds: “With its leadership position in helping first-generation college students attain the American dream, UCI is one of the best environments for tomorrow’s leaders to work cross-collaboratively, developing their leadership and problem-solving skills.”
“With UCI’s outstanding leadership,” he says, “it’s easy to see why the university’s future is so bright.”
Originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of UCI Magazine.