Encouraging a college-going culture

Scores of City Heights residents aimed a College Fest at Officer Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park last month aimed at getting youth in the neighborhood gearing up toward securing a higher education.

Scores of City Heights residents aimed a College Fest at Officer Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park last month aimed at getting youth in the neighborhood gearing up toward securing a higher education.

Ask City Heights teenager Edmundo Lopez where he went to middle school, and you’ll get four answers: Monroe Clark, Wilson, Roosevelt, and the Alternative Learning for Behavior and Attitude Community School.

“I wasn’t the brightest student back then, so I got kicked out of most of my schools,” Lopez said.

Before he encountered Reality Changers, a local nonprofit that provides tutoring and academic support to struggling students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Lopez had a grade point average of 0.0. Within a few years, he raised his GPA to 3.5. He is now enrolled at San Diego Mesa College and plans to transfer to UC Berkeley

“No one believed I would go,” he said.

Lopez was one of dozens of Reality Changers alumni who helped put on this year’s College Fest at Officer Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park. The Sept. 19 event, designed to bring college representatives and alumni to City Heights, attracted more than 450 high school students and their family members.

“We wanted to bring the colleges to City Heights so that residents here could interact with Ivy League schools, local universities and colleges all across the country,” said Christopher Yanov, founder and president of Reality Changers.

Representatives from more than a dozen colleges and universities set up tables in the park to distribute information and answer questions about admissions, financial aid, academic programs and athletics. Current college students and other Reality Changers alumni helped run the event and chatted with high school students. Organizers also brought in a DJ, a rock-climbing wall, a bounce house and caricature artist to create a festival atmosphere.

Yanov said the College Fest, now in its fourth year, is an important part of Reality Changers’ effort to foster a strong, college-going culture in City Heights, where the number of adults who have college degrees is exceptionally low.

In the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the park, for example, less than 10 percent of adults age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree. In most City Heights neighborhoods, less than two-thirds of adult residents hold even a high school diploma, and many residents were born outside the United States.

“How are those families supposed to know how the American college system works?” Yanov said.

In addition to a general lack of familiarity with the higher education system, the community also faces higher rates of poverty and crime, and many high schoolers are more likely to know a gang member than someone who went to college.

“That’s the reality we are trying to change,” Yanov said.

Reality Changers targets students who have GPAs below 2.0. The organization offers weekly motivational meetings, guidance counseling and tutoring sessions to students in eighth through 11th grades. High school seniors participate in a special program that guides them through the college application process. About 528 students currently participate in one of the programs.

Dilshod Otadjanov was one of the recent graduates helping out at College Fest. Otadjanov was born in Uzbekistan and moved with his family to Russia when he was 6 years old. Facing severe ethnic discrimination in Russia, they moved to City Heights six years ago.

As a new student at Wilson Middle School, Otadjanov struggled to keep his grades up while learning English and adjusting to American culture.

“Before joining Reality Changers, I was just going to school to keep my parents happy,” he said. “That was my main goal. I wasn’t even thinking, like, college or nothing.”

Tutors at Reality Changers helped Otadjanov improve his English and his grades. He soon raised his GPA high enough to be eligible for the Academic Connections program at UC San Diego. The three-week summer program gives high school students the opportunity to live on a college campus and take college-level courses taught by doctoral students. Classes of no more than 22 students meet for five hours a day.

Otadjanov said the UCSD program gave him a taste of the campus experience and helped him prepare for the rigors of college coursework. He is now a freshman at California State University San Marcos and plans to major in business administration with an emphasis in accounting.

Reality Changers data show the summer program at UCSD has been particularly effective. Among Reality Changers students who have participated in the UCSD program for at least one summer, 81 percent have graduated or are on track to graduate from a four-year university. Among students such as Otadjanov who have attended the UCSD program three times or more, 97 percent have graduated or are on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Back at the Stanford University table at College Fest, Stanford alumna and Carmel Valley resident Allie Hayase answered questions about college orientation, internships and counseling services. Hayase said questions about financial aid were the most common among the City Heights students who stopped by the table.

“Your job is to get in, and then we’ll help you figure out how to pay for it,” Hayase told one student who said she was worried about the cost of attending a private university. Based on census data that show the median household income in some parts of City Heights is just $20,000, many students would qualify for a full free ride at Stanford.

Scholarships are a significant part of the Reality Changers approach. The organization says graduates of the program receive an average of $88,000 in college scholarships. Most of that amount is offered by universities and outside organizations, but Reality Changers also offers scholarships to its graduates who have additional financial need. By next year, Reality Changers will be able to say that it has helped its graduates secure $100 million in scholarships since the organization got started in 2001.