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From Gang Member To College Student With Positive Peer Influence

Judd Aguiar, who has received acceptances from 8 universities and dreams of being elected to Congress one day, with his mother Julia Aguiar.
Padma Nagappan
Judd Aguiar, who has received acceptances from 8 universities and dreams of being elected to Congress one day, with his mother Julia Aguiar.
From Gang Member To College Student With Positive Peer Influence
A free tutoring program helps troubled teens turn their lives around and win scholarships to college.

A free college readiness program in City Heights is helping inner-city high school students become the first in their families to go to college. The program has enabled many teenagers to overcome troubled backgrounds, gang involvement and drug habits and turn their lives around.

Judd Aguiar is being raised by a single mother who works long hours to put food on the table. The 17 year old Mission Bay High school senior has been accepted into eight universities.

But just a few years ago, things were very different.


"Middle school was very challenging for me. There was a lot of gangs. I was involved in a gang, with friends. I was under the influence instead of being above the influence," Judd said.

Judd said back then, he was completely lost. But today he says he's a "completely different Judd. This Judd has checks and balances. This Judd now has a target."

The transformation is thanks to Reality Changers. The non-profit program helps students with home work, college applications and finding financial aid.

Twice a week, nearly 150 students gather on the third floor of an office building in City Heights. The evening begins with a session on vocabulary words for the SAT. It’s followed by dinner. Each family is expected to provide dinner for everyone twice a year.

Then Chris Yanov, the founder, hustles the students to a big room where they practice public speaking. Today’s topic is community service.


Yanov began Reality Changers 10 years ago, with four 8th graders.

"I saw they were just as smart as anybody else, they just needed an extra push," Yanov said.

Growing up near the strawberry fields of Central California, Yanov went to a high school where 60 percent of the students were Latino. Many of his friends became gang members, which is why he decided to work with troubled youth.

"Most inner-city students know more people who have been shot and killed on the street than people who are on the road to college," Yanov pointed out.

While attending UC, San Diego, Yanov began working with gangs members. He took them to church, coordinated basketball games and tried to change their minds. He was even stabbed once. Then he read a book that upended everything he had done until then.

"By bringing them together, I was unintentionally strengthening the gang, I was making things worse. Instead of working with one particular gang, where the members grew up together, dropped out of the same schools together, joined gangs together, I needed to find teenagers from different neighborhoods and focus on the positive," Yanov explained.

The book, "The American Street Gang," by Malcom Klein, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, was an epiphany for Yanov. Drawing on lessons learned from it, he began Reality Changers with $300 in 2001 while teaching in a high school.

Later that year, he won $23,000 on the TV show Wheel of Fortune, which he used to fund the program. Now the program is funded from grants, including one from the California Wellness Foundation.

Today students from 40 different high schools around San Diego County are a part of Reality Changers.

"They’re introduced to a brand new social circle, students who have goals, who wanna be some thing in their life, something they may not find on their street corner," said Yanov.

While Yanov and his team have changed many lives, he said there's no time to stop and congratulate themselves, because there is a huge need in the community for such programs.

"There's so many other stories out there just waiting to be made. We have a 150 students on our waiting list trying to get off the streets and into this college readiness program. Gangs don't have waiting lists, so why should Reality Changers? That's what I am focusing on now," he said.

It's had a huge impact on Evelyn Ramirez, a senior at Kearny High School. She returned to the U.S. after living in Mexico with her mother for a few years.

"When I came from Mexico, college was the last thing on my mind. If anything school was a place for me to run away to. When I came to Reality Changers, they talked about SATs, ACTs, it kind of influenced me to be a better person," said Evelyn, who has been accepted to six universities and is a finalist for the Gates Millennium scholarship.

Her older sister, Nellida Ramirez, has been supporting and caring for Evelyn and her brother by cleaning houses. Along with the help of other family members, Ramirez has been able to keep the family together.

"The impact of Reality Changers is something I can't explain. It's offered them the help I can't offer them. It has helped me so much by helping them succeed in life," said Ramirez.

At 23, Ramirez is attending San Diego State University and hopes to become an elementary school teacher.

"It would have been such a great help if I'd known about the program when I went through my application process," said Ramirez.

For the sisters, Reality Changers has provided them the structure they need.

"The moral support, help people offer you, the kindness is what I basically live off of. It helps me have hope and faith to continue through school, be a better person and offer others the best I can give them," Evelyn said.

The program's success has been noticed as far away as Washington D.C. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it a role model for other programs around the U.S.

Yanov says he uses positive peer influence to motivate the kids.

"When they’re surrounded by like-minded teens who unlike them have bigger goals, then goal setting and accomplishing those goals becomes contagious," he said.

That’s how Judd Aguiar caught the bug. Today he dreams of being elected to Congress.

He described what he has gained from the program. "Self-confidence, experience, knowledge, the motivation to get out there and do some thing."

His mother, Julia Aguiar, is grateful to the program that has made a big difference in their lives.

"His attitude and his self-confidence, he change a lot. We become more friends, we communicate much better. It change our life," Aguiar said.

This fall, Judd plans to attend UC Irvine on a scholarship.

One hundred and twenty seven students have graduated from the program, and have received over $10 million in scholarships to top universities around the country.

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