In 1987, I had to make the decision of whether to leave my tenured teaching position at a local community college and accept an offer to assume the ownership of South Coast College from the owner who was about to retire.
It was quite a decision because coming from a lower middle-class family, I was making more money than I ever thought possible in my lifetime for doing so little. I was at the top of my pay scale working three hours a day with summers off. The prior year, I had even taken a sabbatical to work for stock only for a startup company that was developing software for court reporters and court reporting students.
It was the most exciting period of my life being engaged with people who were passionate about what they were doing and worked not for the money or for their future retirement but for the excitement and challenge of developing a product that would compete with what was available in the market. This experience is what I thought business was all about! It was exciting! It was challenging! It was fun! My opportunity to become a part of South Coast College was created from my involvement in this company through a textbook that I had written with two court reporters.
It was tempting to build a court reporting school with the same kind of passionate people who were interested in creating champions. After all, preparing someone to take the Certified Shorthand Reporter Examination, the most difficult test in the country, is akin to preparing Olympic Champions.
And South Coast College under the then owner, Stan Whitley, had demonstrated that South Coast College was the best at what it did. I made my decision and resigned my position. The day after I signed the papers to assume my new ownership position, I was informed that the Director of Court Reporting at South Coast College and all the skill teachers left and formed their new school in Anaheim, taking with them 50% of the students and all the teaching materials. It was a far cry from what I had imagined, but I received my glimpse of the challenges that every business owner faces.
On the positive side, I learned how willing businesses are to help one another, even their competitors. My competitor in Santa Ana, hearing of my dilemma called and said, “What do you need?” I said, “Qualifying examinations.” She said, “I’ll be right over.” She brought the qualifiers. I even had a teacher who was on sabbatical reach out and come over to help train new instructors.
We got up and running and just when we thought life was going to once again take on the semblance of normality, South Coast College was notified one day that it was nominated and was a recipient of the Business of the Year Award by the City of Westminster and the next day that it had lost its lease on the elementary school in which it was located.
Not only did the school have to relocate, it had to relocate within 5 miles according to the state. The school had grown in a short period of time to a population of 800 students. The only building that could accommodate the school was in Anaheim. However, it was nine miles away.
To accommodate the students that did not want to travel that far, South Coast College had to establish a second campus. Finally, when the school added two new programs and became degree granting, it was relegated to a new status and allowed to consolidate the campuses.
By that time, the cost of running two campuses with two sets of teachers and two separate staffs almost bankrupted the school. At one point, another competitor from L.A. called to use our facility for hosting one of the organizations that provided continuing education. I said, “You are welcome to use the facility, but I am not quite sure that we will be around at that time. I need $100,000 just to keep going.” Her reply stunned me. She said, “Come up and get a check.”
It was just another instance where a business owner went out of her way to help another business owner, and I learned that it was the way of hard-working, business owners. They help one another. South Coast went on to survive one disaster after another and through the years one by one, the graduates of our court reporting program who could work as court reporters making several times as much joined our staff as instructors and became the spirit of South Coast College or, as our students and alumni say, “SCC bred.”
The ultimate indignation for South Coast College came in 2017 when South Coast College became as one government official put it “collateral damage” in the attempt to eradicate private schools, now called for-profit schools, through the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges, or ACICS, losing its accreditation.
South Coast College initially had sought ACICS accreditation because of its reputation as being the best accrediting agency. As a result of ACICS losing its recognition, South Coast College was forced to obtain State Approval as if it had never existed as a school — a grueling experience of re-applying for approval and another year of obtaining accreditation from a new accreditor. During this period, students and incoming students had to sign a disclosure that they were aware that if South Coast College did not receive accreditation, their credits and certificates and degrees would be worthless.
The worst part of that disaster was that my four remaining competitors who had become fast friends over the years decided that it was too much for them to do to try to keep going. The process was too time-consuming and expensive. They had no choice but to close their doors. South Coast College is now the only private court reporting school in the state. With our population at 450 before the storm and barely 200 after, South Coast College demonstrated that it could still produce more court reporters than any other school in California and had resumed its take-on-the-world attitude.
You know the rest. COVID-19 happened. South Coast College had one week to convert to an online school, and it still produces California court reporters.
Life is never easy. Business is never easy, but despite the challenges, I have never regretted my decision.
Editor’s Note: Jean Gonzalez, owner of Orange-based South Coast College, wrote the above as part of her submission to receive the Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for Ethics in the Pacific Southwest region. South Coast College has been named a 2021 finalist, and winners will be announced in October.