30 years at helm of College of the Canyons has seen huge growth

College of the Canyons chancellor Dr. Dianne Van Hook in her office. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Dianne Van Hook’s tenure as College of the Canyons’ chancellor stretches back to July 1, 1988 — nearly six months after Santa Clarita’s incorporation as a city — and it’s hard to tell who’s benefited most in the 30 years since: the students, the college or the city.

In the 3 decades since Van Hook assumed control of the Santa Clarita Valley’s lone community college, the square footage has more than quadrupled – if you include the new Canyon Country Campus – the number of certificated degrees and programs has surged from 27 and 17, respectively, to 92 and 90, and three bond measures have been passed – Measure M, C and E – “with the help of the community, who COC had helped so much over the years,” Van Hook said.

Take a look out the window of the state-of-the-art Dr. Dianne G. Van Hook University Center at COC’s Valencia campus and you’ll see a lot has changed in town, as well.

“I mean when I came here, we had a KMart and a Do it Center as I recall,” Van Hook said with a chuckle. “There weren’t very many places to stay the night,” she added, recalling the period when she had to stay at the Ranch House Inn near Magic Mountain Parkway due to the hundred of names ahead of her on an apartment waiting list.

“It was a real cowboy place back in those days,” with little restaurants, a few businesses and barely any hotels, Van Hook said, “but that’s what attracted me to this place.”

At the time, the governing board of COC was seeking somebody who could change the community’s perception of the college and inform them of the resource the college could be for this community.

“In simple terms,” Van Hook said, “They wanted somebody who could get money, develop plans, build buildings, develop partnerships with the surrounding community — including the schools, businesses and nonprofits — and build a great team of people.”

To some, the job may have seemed too large for one person to accomplish, but not for Van Hook, the woman who had a hand in shaping six community colleges before she ever stepped foot on the COC campus.

I really like working with business and industry,” Van Hook said. “That’s why I chose to come here,” and its originally why she began to pursue a career as an administrator.

While putting herself through college at Long Beach City College and California State University Long Beach, Van Hook taught preschool and Head Start at schools in the inner city, which was a long ways away from the midwestern towns that Van Hook bounced from as a child.

The educator soon found herself teaching middle school for 6-7 years before she found a passion for the creative process that college fosters.

With her master’s — and, later, doctorate degree — secured from the University of La Verne, Van Hook began counseling at night on the campus of Cerritos College, where she’d start a women’s center.

Her success in Cerritos eventually landed her full-time gig at Santa Ana College, where like COC in the present and Cerritos College before, she continued to start new programs.

The young counselor wrote grants and received money to start programs and services for “nontraditional students and reentry women,” Van Hook said, with an intention to get women into well-paying careers.

Women weren’t always allowed to take the classes that would allow them to become auto mechanics, welders or electricians, she said, recalling a time when women were only allowed to take sewing, cooking and other courses that were related to life in the home.

Before the end of her tenure as a counselor, Van Hook would start programs benefiting welfare recipients, first generation college students and the Indo-Chinese refugees who would come to Santa Ana in search of safety and a new career.

Van Hook was also asked to start a foundation to fund the building of the planned Rancho Santiago campus — which surely helped prepare her for the creation of COC’s new campus in Canyon Country.

After accomplishing all that she could as a counselor, Van Hook began applying for jobs as an administrator.

“I wanted to be able to develop,” Van Hook said. “I wanted to develop people and places and programs and possibilities and partnerships.”

Feather River College, a small rural community college in Quincy, California, gave her the opportunity to do just that when they hired Van Hook as dean of instruction/student service in 1984.

It was a bit of a culture shock, Van Hook said. “I went from going to The Ritz for lunch to going to the Polka Dot Drive-in, which is still the only drive-in after 34 years in Quincy.”

Two years later, while speaking at a conference in Lake Tahoe, Van Hook spotted an announcement for a job opening on the marquee of the local community college, a place where Van Hook and her husband always wanted to work.

“Even if for a year or two,” she said. “We were snow skiers and water skiers and I’m a hiker so I thought this would be fun.”

On top the of the leisurely benefits, Van Hook said “I wanted to make that move because Lake Tahoe was building a permanent campus,” which is something she deemed important, because it would prepare and help her acquire the skills to become a college president, which she wanted to become prior to the age of 40.

“As you’re getting ready to do the next job, you wanna make sure you acquire the knowledge and the skills so when the opportunity becomes available, you’re ready,” Van Hook said. “One of the things I didn’t know too much about was building buildings.”

She certainly learned as she helped LTCC expand from rental buildings — that previously served as a car dealership, a Salvation Army and a blue motel right on Highway 50 — into the campus that it is today.

After a year and half of leading Lake Tahoe CC, the chancellor position at COC became available, and you probably know the rest.

Van Hook was no stranger to the job, as she had applied 3 times prior – once while at Santa Ana, again at Feather River and now for the final time in 1988.

Having grown up on a farm in Minnesota, Van Hook learned that you don’t give up when something doesn’t go your way.

“(My Great-Aunt Mabel) used to always say ‘don’t ever give up, the the third time’s the charm,’ and this was the third time so I thought, ‘I’ll stick with aunt Mabel,’ and I applied and got the job,” she said.

Having been properly prepared by almost every job prior, Van Hook was everything the board was looking for, and the small town with big business potential was everything Van Hook was looking for.

When the young chancellor wasn’t struggling to find a suitable living space that wasn’t waitlisted, she was working on changing the school’s funding formula after realizing it was not in the college’s favor.

“We were serving 23 percent more students than we were getting paid for, and the college was doing that for about three years,” Van Hook said, “You can’t do that without going broke.”

Van Hook also began petitioning a senator to sponsor a growth bill, so that community colleges who are fast-growing – like COC – can get properly funded.

With tactical persuasion, Van Hook said she was able to convince the senator to draft a bill that would become law.

With proper funding now available, the community college started to grow quite rapidly.

“Between the mid-90s and 2004 we were funded for 159 percent growth, which is something that was pivotal for us,” Van Hook said. However, the school still lacked a current five-year construction plan on file, which was considered a must-have at that time.

“In those days, community college buildings were funded by the state because it was too difficult to pass local bond measures, and the state determined which schools would be funded based on their master plan,” Van Hook said.

Like so many things before, the chancellor again found success when she installed a master plan that secured enough funding to remodel the school’s older facilities.

However, Van Hook was dissatisfied because the school wasn’t doing very much training for the local community, which – even in 1989 – was a service that Van Hook believed was essential for a community college to provide.

“I used to say that community colleges were going to become the graduate schools of the future,” she said. Not because junior colleges were going to offer graduate degrees — which COC now does thanks in part to Van Hook — but because Van Hook always felt that community colleges should act as the trainers of the workforce.

With the help of a board member, Van Hook said, the college organized the Vision 2000 Luncheon with 200 business CEOs and the Valencia Industrial Association.

We asked them what they needed from us to be able to grow their workforce for now and into the future, Van Hook said. From there, the college produced a Vision 2000 magazine that stated the things the college would be doing 11 years later.

It was a publication of guesses and ambitious goals that was written as if it was the year 2000, but it allowed the college to move forward to achieve those goals “with momentum and synergy,” Van Hook said.

“One thing leads to another,” VH said, and 30 years later the college is now preparing students for business and industry better than ever, partnering with the Hart district and working with nonprofit organizations to further increase the resources available to the community.

Every idea that was implemented led to five new ones, Van Hook said. “We really do believe if we can imagine it then we can figure it out. And we don’t allow the funding from the state to limit us in doing whatever it takes to meet the community’s needs.

Van Hook said she’s been lucky. Lucky to work in a booming economic area with residents who want to help their community grow, lucky that she had the opportunity to build those partnerships, programs and people that she always wanted and, most of all, “lucky to have worked a job in two different places, where I learned in four years what I would’ve learned in 12 or 14 had I gone the traditional route of climbing the career ladder.”

“(COC) is a pretty special opportunity,” Van Hook said, “and having worked full-time or part-time in 7 community college districts, I know,” which is why she has no plans of hanging it up anytime soon.

“As long as you have a purpose and vision for (something),” Van Hook said, “then I think people should do it as long as they want to.”

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