Changing Realities

Christopher Yanov is working to give young people from some of San Diego's toughest neighborhoods the chance they deserve.

By Christine Clark, Muir '06


There is a file cabinet in Christopher Yanov’s office that irks him. It keeps him awake at night. It propels him to work 60-plus hours a week. It motivates him to try harder.

What is in the file cabinet are the futures of young people––many from low-income communities––who could go on to be graduates of any world-renowned university, if they are given a chance.

Yanov, ERC ’99, is working to give these young people the chance they deserve. In May 2001, Yanov founded Reality Changers—a non-profit organization that provides inner-city youth from disadvantaged backgrounds with the resources to become first-generation college students. This is accomplished through academic support, financial assistance and leadership training.

Yanov established the organization with only $300 and four promising eighth grade students. Since then, the program has helped hundreds of students go on to such colleges as UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, Dartmouth and Harvard. Collectively, Reality Changers participants have earned $25 million in scholarships from a variety of sources, and the program has been commended by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former President of Mexico Vicente Fox—just to name a few.

What is Yanov’s secret? How does Reality Changers enable thousands of youths to succeed? Culture is the anwer, he says.

“We’re creating a mentality for kids to believe they belong in college, that they will graduate,” the UC San Diego alumnus says. “They’re smart enough, they’re talented enough and with the right help, they’ll have the finances to go to college.”

Yanov believes that giving young people the opportunity to experience college as students helps create a college-bound culture among Reality Changers participants.

“To make college more of a reality for students, we send them to UC San Diego to live on campus for three weeks during the summer,” he says.

Through a partnership with the UC San Diego college-prep summer program, Academic Connections, Yanov has more than 350 students spend three weeks on campus, where they take classes ranging from marine biology to mechanical engineering.

“They live on campus, eat in the dining halls and take classes every morning and afternoon. This helps convince them they can go to college because they already have.”

Yanov’s drive to help young people break social barriers was instilled in him at a young age. The son of two teachers, Yanov grew up in a middle-class community near the strawberry fields of Oxnard, Calif. Most of his associates in school and on the playground were the sons and daughters of local farmworkers.

By the time Yanov was in high school he noticed that most of the middle class and well-to-do kids were going to college. Yet many of those from the strawberry fields, who were among the brightest and most talented students in school, ended up getting into gangs and finding trouble.

“I always asked myself why these kids didn’t go to college,’” Yanov says. “And so when I started at UC San Diego I tried to find the answer.”

Some of the 350 Reality Changers arriving on campus. They will spend three weeks taking classes ranging from marine biology to mechanical engineering.

Yanov was attracted to UC San Diego because of its proximity to the border. His experience growing up in Oxnard stimulated his interest in both Spanish and the challenges of immigration, and led him to study political science and Spanish literature. In just five years, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UC San Diego and two master’s degrees from the University of San Diego in peace and justice, and international relations. During his freshman year at Eleanor Roosevelt College, Yanov began volunteering at a Spanish-speaking community center where he became close with some of San Diego’s gang members, in the hope of directing them away from a life of crime. 

Yanov’s proximity to known criminals often put him in dangerous situations. “Even driving these kids around was risky because if someone from a rival gang saw us, I was just as much a target as they were,” Yanov says. “I’ve taken a knife (through part of a hand). I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun and I’ve been in between violently opposed gang rivals.”

After five years of working with gang-members, Yanov came to an important conclusion: “What I found is that gang prevention doesn’t work,” he said. “I felt like talking about gangs and talking about drugs didn’t help the situation—and it even made it worse. It’s as if a young person is walking a tightrope and you scream ‘don’t look down.’ What do they do? They look, and fall.”

Yanov was working as a substitute teacher when he met four extremely bright eighth graders. He worried where they would end up because they had older brothers and sisters already involved in gangs. Thus, Reality Changers was established.

“It starts at eighth grade,” he says. “It’s the perfect time to plant the seed in the mind of students that they will go to college, right before they begin walking the tightrope from childhood to adulthood.

Reality Changers works because of its rigorous five-year commitment. Participants meet once a week for three hours at the program’s City Heights headquarters or the North County satellite location. They study for 90 minutes with tutors, half of whom are current UC San Diego students. They listen to speakers and take part in leadership development seminars. They also take weekly SAT practice tests.

Jorge Narvaez, Muir '11 (above left), with Christopher Yanov, ERC '99, was one of the first four members of Reality Changers in 2001. Narvaez and his daughter became singing sensations on YouTube with over 100,000,000 views, before appearing on America's Got Talent.

Yanov insists that Reality Changers isn’t just providing youths an alternative to risky behavior; it has simply become the thing to do.

 “I don’t give gangs or drugs any of my face time,” he says. “Now we have enough members in the program that many more want to attend. This is because all their friends are involved. We started with four participants in 2001. The next year we had 12 and it has been increasing every year, so much so that now unfortunately we have to turn students away, because we only have the resources to support so many.”

That’s where the file cabinet comes in. It’s filled with more than 200 Reality Changers hopefuls who are on the waitlist to join the program. 

“My feeling is that gangs don’t have waitlists, so why should we?” he says. “Honestly, it’s the students who have not made it into Reality Changers who inspire me to work harder. For example, I met one student Gabino, who was sentenced to life in prison when he was just 16 years old. What if Reality Changers had been stronger and had had more resources to pull him up and out of the lifestyle he led? That’s what keeps me up at night.”

He notes that currently about 57 percent of U.S. high school graduates go on to finish college. For Reality Changers participants, who have taken part in the UC San Diego residential program for three summers, the college graduation rate is about 98 percent.

Reality Changers doesn’t receive government funding, so Yanov works tirelessly to raise money. The program receives grants from foundations, but more than half of donations come from individuals, who give anywhere from $5 to six figures. The program, operated by Yanov and a small staff, also receives support from hundreds of volunteers in UC San Diego and from other community members throughout the county.

“Reality Changers has shown me that inner-city students can flourish if given the opportunity,” Yanov says. “I have seen hundreds of students who live in San Diego’s toughest neighborhoods, go on to attend the country’s most prestigious universities. 

We want to make college dreams a reality for many more.”

To learn more about Reality Changers, go to realitychangers.org.

Christine Clark is a writer in the communications and public affairs office at UC San Diego.