Academic Connections Helps Change Reality

July 25, 2008
Kennedy Vermilion


”I want to have the college experience before I graduate next year,” high school senior, Stephanie Bardales said. Stephanie is one of 42 Reality Changers students participating in Academic Connections this summer. Reality Changers: Agentes de Cambio, in San Diego, Calif., and the University of California, San Diego’s (UCSD) Academic Connections program cooperate to help students in unfortunate situations focus on academics and achieving their long-term goals. Their collaborative efforts bring the students to the UCSD campus for a pre-college, summer academic and residential experience. Students live in dormitories, eat in a dining hall, take a college course and earn six college elective credits. Along with coursework, after-class and weekend activities are planned for the students.

Reality Changers: Agentes de Cambio

Reality Changers, whose mission is “Building 1st Generation College Students who Follow God’s Word,” presently serves about 100 students on the college track. For five years, Christopher Yanov, founder of Reality Changers, focused on counseling gang members who had followed a self-destructive path, but he had little success. After reading The American Street Gang by Malcolm Klein, Yanov realized he had been reaching out in the wrong way. The teens believed the gangs were like family; they did not want to separate. In May 2001, Yanov started Reality Changers: Agentes de Cambio at the Hispanic Presbyterian Church, serving as the program’s director. With $300 and four 8th grade students, Yanov’s aim was to initiate his own “gang” with meals, friends, safety and support. As gang-banger teens started realizing the perks of open arms, more decided to join.

Every Tuesday night, the religious organization provides counseling and academic services for the teens. The students and staff meet to have dinner, Bible study, a guest speaker, SAT practice and homework time with tutors. Each student is expected to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA and to participate in a school sport, club or activity. If the teens do not own a computer, they are provided with one. Also, the teens are required to pass an annual drug test.

During the summer, the students participate in a one-week church camp. “You get in touch with God,” Diego Ceron, Reality Changers first-year student, said. The highlight of the year for the program is the scholarship ceremony where the high school students receive funds to participate in Forest Home Christian Church Camp and Academic Connections.

Collaborative Efforts

Academic Connections requires a minimum GPA of a 3.3 and tuition is $3,450 for room and board, field trips and coursework. The Reality Changers students are not exempt, but the program raises money to send all students with a 3.5 GPA or higher to Academic Connections. Reality Changers program participants raise scholarship funds through donations and fundraisers. Fundraisers include Speech Nights, where the students share their stories to churches and organizations.

Successful Students

After graduating high school, Reality Changers students become highly attractive to the nation’s top schools, and some are even offered full scholarships. Recently, 36 Reality Changers graduates received college scholarships. Notably among them, Arlene Alvarez was granted $202,000 by Northwestern University and Norberto Morales received $184,000 from Dartmouth College.

Aldo Cruz, former teenage gang member, has made great changes and academic progress since joining Reality Changers in 2004. “I was going down the wrong path,” Aldo stated. Christopher Yanov was Aldo’s substitute honors pre-algebra teacher his seventh grade year. Yanov saw potential in the student even though he brushed off school work and was involved in a gang. He asked Aldo to complete an application for Reality Changers, but Aldo turned the offer down. Yanov persevered and called Aldo’s parents to offer the application again. His parents agreed that Aldo needed to join. “Man, I hated it in the beginning,” Aldo said. After Aldo realized Reality Changers could help him stay on track for success, he quit gang activity and improved his grades. “I basically got my priorities straight,” Aldo stated. He thanks Yanov for helping him transform from gang-banger to successful teen.

Thank You

Reality Changers has raised nearly $3 million in scholarships in the last seven years to send students to Forest Home and Academic Connections. “It’s opened a lot of doors academically,” Angelo Marin, high school junior, said about the collaboration between Academic Connections and Reality Changers. These two programs have made an impact on many of the Reality Changers students. Many of the high school seniors are deciding their college majors and are looking forward to their futures. The Reality Changers teens are thankful for the time spent to improve their lives.

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