Lauren Rodriguez PO ’22 spreads school spirit, smarts on ‘Jeopardy!’ National College Championship

Lauren Rodriguez stands in front of a podium.
On her first ‘Jeopardy!’ National College Championship episode, Lauren Rodriguez PO ’22 crushed the competition. (Courtesy: Lauren Rodriguez)

In an episode airing Feb. 10, Lauren Rodriguez PO ’22 swept the board on “Jeopardy! National College Championship,” proving herself — and her Pomona College sweatshirt — to be the winner of the night. 

Rodriguez advanced to the semifinals, competing against Isaac Applebaum, a junior at Stanford University, and Stephen Privat, a junior at Louisiana State University. She came in second in an episode airing Thursday, losing to Applebaum but earning $20,000 for her spot. 

The special edition of the show runs Feb. 8 to Feb. 22 and features “36 of America’s sharpest undergraduates” competing for the $250,000 grand prize in the collegiate championship. 

Rodriguez first decided to test her luck while in quarantine in the fall of 2020. Since the pandemic put the world in jeopardy, Rodriguez had a lot of time to broaden her horizons and her brain. Studying for the test “broke the monotony” of pandemic life. 

“I was really bored … and I sort of got into watching ‘Jeopardy!’” she said. “I had never watched a lot of ‘Jeopardy!’ before but … I watched it and I would think to myself, ‘I know a lot of these answers.’ I was like, ‘maybe I could do this?’” 

Between October 2020 and January 2021, Rodriguez had “Jeopardy!” on the brain constantly, completing three rounds of auditions (the Anytime test, a proctored Zoom quiz and a final interview). Nine months later, she heard that she was chosen to be a finalist on the show.

“I was surprised, but honestly after my audition, I felt pretty confident about how I did,” Rodriguez said. “I felt pretty good about my chances.”

This confidence might be what made her champion. Rodriguez trounced her opponents Matthew “Matt” Downing, a senior at the University of Notre Dame, and Elijah Odunade, a junior at the University of Georgia in the quarterfinals on Feb. 10, competing like it was a no-brainer. She took the lead with the first question and controlled the game until the end, with a final total of $20,300 and a $16,500 lead on her competitors. 

“[Downing and Odunade] were really confused,” Rodriguez said. “They were like, what is this small school that’s just crushed [us], like why [is it] able to compete against these big schools.”

Rodriguez, a sociology and public policy major at Pomona College, said she’s proud to promote Pomona and the 5Cs on a show that has such a widespread presence and national recognition.

I think that taking a bunch of classes in all these different areas … prepared [me]. I also just feel very inspired by the accomplishments of people at Pomona.”—Lauren Rodriguez PO ’22

The 5Cs’ tight knit community translated well to the “Jeopardy!” environment and helped Rodriguez feel comfortable as a contestant. The supportive community of smart students was one of her favorite parts about being on the show. 

“It was really nice to bond [with] the contestants,” Rodriguez said. “The experience of being there at the stage was really surreal. When I first got there, it was overwhelming, but in the best way. I had a lot of fun with it.”

Rodriguez has always really loved puzzles and trivia games. As a kid, she enjoyed doing word searches on road trips and planes. Eventually, she branched out to doing Sudoku and crossword puzzles which she admits she used to be “awful” at because the pop culture references went over her head. She credits her parents with preparing her for the big competition, as they encouraged her interest in these games.

“They taught me that it was cool to be smart, and it was okay to be smart,” Rodriguez said. “I used to really like doing stuff like competing in spelling bees, and nerdy stuff like that … I feel like kids can feel self-conscious about that. But my parents always celebrated it for me and really encouraged me to pursue what I wanted to do.”

Pomona has also played a significant part in Rodriguez’s success as a “Jeopardy!” contestant. 

“Going to Pomona [has] helped me develop a really wide breadth of knowledge,” Rodriguez said. “On ‘Jeopardy!’ they asked [questions] about so many different things and disciplines: art and history and politics and science; they just really run the gamut. I think that taking a bunch of classes in all these different areas … prepared [me]. I also just feel very inspired by the accomplishments of people at Pomona.”

Rodriguez is currently working on her thesis, which is an exploration of the link between mass media and public policy. She is writing about the sociology of game shows and how they influence public discourse and, ultimately, impact our society. “Jeopardy!” and what sort of questions are asked on it are, naturally, her starting point. 

“‘Jeopardy!’ is not perfect,” Rodriguez said. “In many ways, it can perpetuate inequities and can reinforce existing hierarchies … I want to dig deeper into that and think about ways that ‘Jeopardy!’ can be [a] more equitable and positive influence on discourse and therefore, policymaking.”

After graduation, Rodriguez is planning on moving to San Francisco to work for a management consulting firm. Her sagacious advice for fellow students who want to be future “Jeopardy!” contestants:  “Instead of studying, just try to be a sponge.” 

“Soak up things in the world around you, be curious when you see something in your classes or if you’re reading an article … just try to always be learning,” she said. “I think that the best type of studying that you can do is to try to always learn more about the world around you.” 

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