UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2009
[spinning wheels]
Solving the Puzzle
When Christopher Yanov won big, he didn’t just buy a vowel

19a_cmyk_opt

J

ust a few weeks before I was to start a master’s program at USD, I attempted to get on the TV game show Wheel of Fortune at tryouts in San Diego. I failed to make the cut both times. During my subsequent two-hour drive to Los Angeles, I muttered to myself: How could I forgo a day’s salary as a substitute teacher to try out again? Why did I expect the results to be any different this time?

Once I got to the L.A. tryout, the now-familiar contestant search team greeted me. By this point, I knew each of them by name, and in retrospect, I think it was my familiarity with the trio — “Good to see you again, Gary!” “Thanks, Shannon!” “Land me on some big money, Jackie!” — that led them to believe that I could be just as comfortable under the menacing eyes of TV cameras as I was on this third go-round.

Ten days later, I was a bona fide contestant. Thirty minutes after I’d taken the stage, I walked away with nearly twice as much money as I’d earned over an entire year’s worth of substitute teaching. Thanks largely to the four R’s in the puzzle “British Prime Minister Tony Blair” (that I called for $3,500 apiece), my life was changed. Pat and Vanna’s contribution to my USD education fund allowed me to devote all of my non-studying time to volunteering as the director of Reality Changers, a program dedicated to building first-generation college students from among San Diego’s toughest neighborhoods.

I’d started Reality Changers with just $300 and four eighth-graders in May 2001 after fruitlessly working with gang members for five years. The shootings and killings were beginning to multiply; I’d even gotten stabbed myself about 10 minutes away from campus. As a regular substitute at a near-by middle school, it was hard to imagine that the smart seventh- and eighth-graders that I was teaching every day could soon become the next wave of hardened gang members.

The concept was simple enough: Provide a weekly tutoring program for teens that lived in San Diego neighborhoods where attending a friend’s funeral was more commonplace than attending a school dance. Offer the students incentives to encourage them to raise their grades. Get them on the road to becoming the first in their families to attend college. Their biggest motivation for earning A’s and B’s became $3,500 scholarships that we offered that allowed the program’s best students to attend college residential programs over the summer, earning real university-level credit. Suddenly, achieving collegiate success became palpable for these 15-year-olds.

In 2005, Reality Changers’ first class of graduates earned over $1 million in scholarships, including full rides to Harvard, Dartmouth, Virginia, Northwestern and many others. I’d call that a pretty good return on my original Wheel of Fortune investment.

Perhaps our program’s biggest story arrived a year later, in the form of Eduardo Corona, who epitomized every gang member stereotype: shaved-bald head, crisp white T-shirt, baggy blue jeans and a permanent scowl. At age 14, Eduardo had been charged with three felonies. The judge gave him a choice: up to six years of incarceration (which would cost taxpayers upwards of $200,000 per year, according to California’s Department of Finance) or participation in Reality Changers.

It was an easy decision for Eduardo, but facing new academic rigor was not. Nonetheless, he was up for the challenge. Within a month, his GPA had doubled to 3.8. By the following summer, he enrolled in a college-level mechanical engineering course. Three weeks after that, flanked by some of the nation’s most intelligent young people, this teenager from the roughest part of town won the top two design prizes in the class for building the strongest bridge and creating a contraption that could drop an egg without breaking it from three stories high.

Today, Eduardo is a year away from finishing high school. The criminal charges against him were dropped; he’s maintained his honor-roll GPA and returned to college last summer to take another science course. His pants fit a little tighter these days and he’s grown his hair out. Better yet, his once-hidden smile now flashes incessantly.

It took me three studio tryouts to learn how to become a good contestant on Wheel of Fortune. By the time Eduardo graduates from high school, he will have had three summer tryouts to learn how to become a successful college student. Just as I became more comfortable with Gary, Shannon and Jackie, I’m pretty sure that Eduardo will become just as assured when communicating with his future college professors.

Christopher Yanov ’03 was the first USD student to graduate with master’s degrees in both peace & justice and international relations. To learn more about Reality Changers, go to www.realitychangers.org.