50 Voices of the Future: Chris Yanov on getting low income kids into college


In honor of UC San Diego Extension's first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

Solving problems is a passion for Christopher Yanov. Whether it’s coming up with the correct answer for a puzzle on “Wheel of Fortune,” or figuring out how to get kids from tough neighborhoods into college, Yanov enjoys putting together the right pieces to create success. One of those successes is Reality Changers, a nonprofit program aimed at getting students from traditionally underserved communities ready for college. Yanov started Reality Changers in 2001, with the help of the $23,000 he won as a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” that same year.

(1) Why is the work you do important?

Reality Changers is headquartered in a locality where only three percent of adults have college diplomas. We believe that college changes everything, especially for low-income intercity youth. We do assemblies for middle school students with a 2.0 GPA and below. Our studies have shown that unless they join Reality Changers, none of those struggling male 8th graders will graduate from their local high school, and only 25 percent of the females will be able to graduate without us.

(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

We started in 2001 with just $300. When May 2016 comes around, 15 years later, our graduates will have produced and secured over $100 million in college scholarships. It's taken us 15 years to accomplish that feat, but we're on track to replicate that again by 2020. We're launching a model where schools, school districts and other nonprofits can come and learn our curriculum. As that begins to spread across California and the country, we believe we can help low-income intercity kids earn $100 million in scholarships every single year for every 30 schools they're in.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

We're taking the curriculum we have for our 12th graders, which helps them navigate through the college application process, and offering that out to essentially anybody who wants it, by the end of 2016. For us, the results are every 20 students that participate earn $1.7 million in college scholarships. That works out to about $88,000 dollars per student. We're able to offer something that can make high school counselors and teachers more efficient and effective and helping low-income kids get to college.

(4) How big of an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

For one thing, in certain areas of San Diego only 50 percent of students are graduating high school. To have all these voices who have never really had a place in San Diego's society to finally be able to represent their families, their neighborhood, their backgrounds – it’ll really be amazing to have these voices play significant roles in San Diego's ongoing conversation.

When you look that far into the future, I mean, who else but Reality Changer students are the best educated, best spoken, and the ones who care the most about their community? There's a good chance that our graduates could take up a third of the City Council within a decade or two. Not that that will happen, I'm just saying that the percentages are in our favor.

(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

Reality Changers focuses on the toughest and brightest youth living in the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. What happens is that by raising their grades from below a 2.0, to say a 3.5 and above, going to UC San Diego over the summer after 9th, 10th, and 11th grade for three weeks, taking college classes, believing and becoming convinced they can succeed at a college level – the sky's the limit. In 50 years, I honestly haven't looked that far into the future with the program and the students, but I can only imagine that the success that they're experiencing at such a young age will be multiplied by the time they have their own resources and their own connections to make an impact on San Diego.

Learn more about Academic Connections and explore our other Pre-College programs such as Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego, SIO Games at Elementary Institute of Science, ThoughtSTEM (college prep credit in computer science), and Test Prep for the CT®, SAT®, GMAT®, GRE®, LSAT® and MCAT®.

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