Reality Changers Helps Students Walk College Tightrope

By Jamese Carrell, Member Services Associate 

Christopher Yanov founded Reality Changers, which from 1996-2001 was dedicated to drug, gang, and violence prevention. In 2001, Yanov shifted his work, desiring to focus on college preparation and help students from disadvantaged backgrounds use education as a tool to achieve their college dream. 

This shift was developed and grounded in the Tightrope Theory, which suggests that messages such as “don’t do drugs” and “don’t be in gangs” are the equivalent of yelling at a tightrope walker, “hey, don’t look down!” 

“At Reality Changers we are the balancing pole; our programs and staff are a source of support for students. In addition, our program alumni and greater community are on the opposite end of the tightrope, encouraging and celebrating them as they walk across, helping them not look down and focus on their goals,” said Theresa Cunningham, vice president of staff and organizational development. The students Reality Changers serves, she continued, “have high potential; they come to us to decide they want to make a change.”

The Reality Changers program has three pillars. 

  • College Town: serves 8th- through 11th-graders; focuses on preparing students for college
  • College Apps Academy: serves 12th-graders; focuses on the college application process, including finding the right college fit and financial aid
  • Alumni Network: serves participants who complete College Apps Academy; focuses on maintaining relationships and support of alumni’s transition to college life and beyond

College Apps Academy, one of the signature programs, serves approximately 500 high school seniors through the seasons in California’s San Diego, North County San Diego and Orange County areas. It addresses every aspect of the college application process, including financial aid and scholarship processes. In the winter the instructors focus shifts to FAFSA; to lower the risk of errors, students are required to have their instructor review their FAFSA before they hit submit. By the spring semester, they’re helping seniors navigate choosing the right college fit and class schedules – as well as the roommate process and difficult situations that may arise – and connecting students to resources at their enrolled institution. 

“We lay out acceptances and help them understand the financial aspect, if they have loans, need to take a loan, hidden costs, et cetera,” College Apps Academy Director Tania Azar said.

Every organization has it challenges, and those at Reality Changers – particularly within the College Apps Academy – often find themselves working with students who lack a college-going identity, despite attending high schools with strong college-going cultures. 

How did they address this issue? By creating a College Survival curriculum, which covers topics such as culture shock, identifying college resources, homesickness, professionalism, networking, study habits, financial literacy, academic struggles, housing and roommates, and scheduling and work-study. 

“We show them they have the skillset and build their confidence to go to a four-year college and how to maximize their financial resources,” Azar said. 

Meanwhile, Reality Changers continues to work toward furthering partnerships with colleges and university professionals to provide an extended support network for the program’s alumni.

“We’re a learning organization,” Cunningham said, “continuing to always be better.”