The office of College of the Canyons Chancellor Dianne Van Hook sits on the second floor of Canyons Hall, overlooking the quad where a graduation ceremony in June conferred over 2,200 degrees.
Her office is filled with her work, awards and mementos accumulated during her 35 years at the helm of the Santa Clarita Valley’s community college. Near the corner, hung next to a window, is a framed picture of a one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota. The photo belonged to her grandmother — a teacher. Most of her family members, however, were farmers.
“They grew corn, hay and raised cattle and started a creamery back in Compton County so they could have a place to, you know, they didn’t have refrigeration well then,” said Van Hook.
Van Hook came to California with her family when she was 10 and herself was a product of a community college during a time when they were few and far between. She became the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. At the time, being a sociology major was a popular thing to do.
“It was the Vietnam War and you know, post-landing on the moon and over half the population were social science majors because we didn’t have that many majors,” said Van Hook. “We didn’t have the degrees that we have now in the areas of study, the knowledge explosion hadn’t even really started.”
After being introduced to the president of the Associated Women Students at her college, California State University, Long Beach, she began to be more involved in leadership — something she did not expect of herself.
“I got involved in student activities, which is not something I ever would have thought that I would want to do, because I was really shy,” said Van Hook. “I just didn’t want to get up in front of people. I wanted to be an elementary school teacher.”
Van Hook would not only become the first in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree, but also earned a master’s and eventually a doctorate. And, not only did Van Hook get over her fear of public speaking, she also would devote the rest of life to becoming a public servant — which includes several lengthy speeches a year in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people about the state of affairs at COC.
Community colleges have changed quite a bit since Van Hook was a student of one and, since she became chancellor in 1988, COC in particular has, as well.
After serving as the dean of the Lake Tahoe Community College District, Van Hook always wanted to come back to COC after applying, and ultimately not receiving, the vice president position in the early 1980s.
When she did begin her career at COC, taking the helm in 1988, it had 60 full-time faculty members — and now has more than 230. It had less than 200,000 square feet of classroom, lab and office space and now boasts 1 million square feet across two campuses. Van Hook said she wants COC to be on par with local California State University and University of California campuses.
“I think in the (1980s) and early (1990s) we were, and still are, as compared to CSU and UC, underfunded,” said Van Hook. “I mean, we should be receiving the same amount for our full-time freshmen students as CSU and UC are, but we’re not — so funding has always been a challenge. We have worked with our representatives to increase the funding we receive per student in many different funding mechanisms over the last 35 years.”
According to COC, the college went from $109,000 in annual fundraising revenue to $1.4 million, from less than $100,000 per year in grant funds to $16 million and from an $8 million annual budget to $164 million during Van Hook’s time as chancellor.
“I think lack of appropriate funding has always been an issue,” said Van Hook. “But we’ve figured out a way around that.”
When asked what things Van Hook was most proud of that could not be defined by numbers, during the 35 years she has served as chancellor, she mainly talked about the people whom she’d shared a work space with for all those years and, of course, the students.
“Walt Disney always used to say the magic is in the people who were in the place, so I’m proud of the magic that people bring to this place that gives students hope that helps them believe … you can do anything if you believe in yourself and you never give up, and that’s what I’m most proud of — is that we engender hope in people for the future, whatever that future is,” said Van Hook.
“We don’t have a specific definition of success,” she added. “Individuals who are successful when their hopes and dreams can be achieved. So there’s a good fit between what they wake up to every day and what they get to do and how they feel at the end of the day, about what they did. That’s what life’s about. So that’s what I’m most proud of.”