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When Christopher Yanov started Reality Changers in 2001, the nonprofit organization had just $300 to its name and a commitment to turn inner-city high school students into first generation college students. He had no idea if its budget would run out in a day, a week, or a year.
Fifteen years later, over 1,000 graduates of Reality Changers are on track to earn over $100 million in scholarships to college by the end of the school year. Yanov said they will likely double that amount by 2020.
We hope that people will use their voice to share that Reality Changers’ graduates will be surpassing the $100,000,000 mark in scholarships this school year, thus demonstrating the program’s impact on San Diego’s low-income youth.
Though Yanov was never sure if his aspirations with Reality Changers would pan out, he had a formula to draw in new students.
“We’ve found that if you want an 8th grader to buy something, whether it’s drugs, gang membership, or this idea of going to college, just have an 11th grader sell it to them.”
Yanov knew was that his previous attempts to get kids off the street through a gang prevention volunteer program didn’t have any effect.
He figured out that if an authority figure told high school students to stay away from gangs, they would be enticed even more by the idea of the forbidden fruit.
But if, instead, he had real examples of students whose lives were changed by something positive like going to college, he thought that he could get more and more kids off the streets and into college.
“It’s just an amazing experience for them to say, ‘wow there’s other people like me from similar backgrounds that have the same high goals’,” Yanov said.
Over the years, photographs of program graduates wearing college sweatshirts lined the walls of the Reality Changers headquarters in City Heights, and graduates kept coming back to mentor other students.
Eduardo Corona is one of those graduates whose reality was changed. During his freshman year in high school, he was arrested and was facing six years in juvenile detention. But, seeking reprieve from the judge, Corona worked through Reality Changers’ College Town program, which provides mentorship and classes to eighth–twelfth grade students. He doubled his GPA to a 3.8 and received a $4,000 scholarship to attend the Academic Connections summer program at UCSD.
Inspired by the mentorship he received at Reality Changers, he realized that he needed to go back to City Heights to show his example to more students.
“The graduates [often] come back and help the younger generation here,” Corona said. “I grew up in this neighborhood and I know the difficulties they have here. So I want more students to graduate and go off to college and explore the world.”
Changing Realities One at a Time
Lucerito Gutierrez especially benefitted from the mentorship of the older Reality Changers. For over twelve years, she and her mother were so poor that they had to pick up bottles and cans from the streets and dumpsters of San Diego to stay afloat.
After a humiliating encounter with a police officer in late high school, she decided to make a change and enrolled in Reality Changers’ College Apps Academy, which helps high school seniors with all of the logistics of applying to college, including writing essays and applying for scholarships.
One day after struggling with several college essays, Gutierrez approached one of the mentors at Reality Changers and confessed that she didn’t believe she had a chance to make it to college.
“I remember [he] was telling me, ‘You do have a chance. There’s so much potential in you’,” Gutierrez said. “He made me realize that just because of where I come from and my background doesn’t mean that I won’t become someone in life.”
The mentor was not exaggerating: following the program, Gutierrez became one of dozens of Reality Changers to receive a Gates Scholarship, worth over $300,000. She is now a third year student at UCSD majoring in computer science engineering, and she serves as the president of the Reality Changers alumni group at UCSD.
Gutierrez’s story isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for a Reality Changer student. Last year’s graduates included seven Gates Scholars, which is more than 21 entire states.
Yanov’s next goal is to be able to purchase a stand-alone facility for the Reality Changers, which currently operates in a space leased from the San Diego Workforce Partnership.
As the group celebrates the $100 million in scholarships awarded to its graduates, Yanov is launching the College Changes Everything campaign. It will highlight the top 100 donors who give to the program, seek to boost the number of monthly donors to 100, and show the achievements that Reality Changers have made in college and beyond.
“For us to be building this cadre of resilient, educated, articulate students who come from the toughest parts of town is really something I think San Diego is going to benefit from for years and years to come,” Yanov said.
To become a monthly donor or make a one-time donation to Reality Changers, go to: www.RealityChangers.org.