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For University of Pennsylvania student Mehek Boparai, one of the best parts about being in the Jeopardy National College Championship was getting to meet 35 other contestants who were exactly her kind of weird.
The other best part: knowing her dad would get to watch her on a show they’d grown to love together.
“It’s always been on my bucket list,” Boparai told Billy Penn about the popular answer-and-question quiz series. “But the reason it was on my bucket list wasn’t necessarily because I wanted to appear on the show. It’s because I wanted my dad to see me on the show.”
Living in Philly now and set to graduate from Penn this May, the English major spent her junior year attending school remotely, living with her parents in Hanford, a small town in California 40 miles south of Fresno. Watching Jeopardy together was one of their favorite pandemic activities, and they rarely missed an episode.
This Wednesday, Boparai appears on the other side of the screen, testing her trivia skills alongside two other college students with host Mayim Bialik. Depending how things go, she could be on next week too.
Boparai is Penn’s first representative in the tournament since 2018. Also repping the Philly region on College Jeopardy this year is Mitch Macek, a sophomore math major from Villanova University.
Jeopardy has revamped its approach to the competition since its last college tournament in 2020, which featured 15 contestants across two weeks of 30-minute episodes. With over double the number of students this year, the championship comprises 18 games, broken into nine hour-long episodes airing on ABC at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, Feb. 8 to Feb. 22.
Boparai didn’t know about the format changes going into the competition, so she was surprised when almost three dozen other students were at the studio.
“I was worried going into it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m a certain kind of weird to be able to get on Jeopardy.’” Things worked out just fine, she explained. “Thankfully, many of us were the same kind of weird.”
(It’s the kind that involves “finding niche humor in academic subjects,” and if you share it, Boparai suggested following her on Twitter.)
Because of COVID restrictions during filming, there weren’t too many chances for socialization outside the studio, but the experience still felt kind of like sleepaway camp, Boparai said. “I get to meet all these people that I’m never gonna see again.”
Leading up to her game, she was nervous. Instead of gunning for an outright win, she set a smaller goal for herself: to end with a positive score.
“I was like a mix of wanting to throw up constantly versus like, just ready for it to be over,” Boparai said. “But it was exciting, and I’m glad I went.”
A show that ‘turns everyday knowledge into a prize’
Unlike a lot of hardcore fans and people who end up on the show, trivia was never Boparai’s world.
“Of course, you feel imposter syndrome,” she said. “Because I was like, there’s some people who would die for this spot who’ve been like doing trivia all their lives.’”
A recent managing culture editor of 34th Street Magazine, member of Penn’s Friars Senior Society, and a director for the college music group Jazz & Grooves, Boparai always loved literature and U.S. history, but didn’t do anything like high school quiz bowl and said she never really watched Jeopardy before college.
But she got hooked on the show during the pandemic, watching every day with her parents, in addition to two reruns daily. Since then, she’s watched it religiously — a fact she once told somebody on a date, who responded by saying he’d never heard of the show (red flag!).
During the time Boparai and her family were immersed in the show, Jeopardy’s iconic host Alex Trebek died from pancreatic cancer. The death “completely gutted” her, Boparai said. She couldn’t bring herself to watch reruns for the next two weeks.
“I don’t normally have connections to celebrities,” she said. “But [with] Alex Trebek, it was hard, because he was such a constant in my life at that point when he passed away.”
She reflected on Trebek’s death in a piece for 34th Street the day he died, writing, “What makes this news so devastating is that it’s much more than the loss of a game show host — Trebek turned everyday knowledge into a prize.”
Boparai took the college online test for fun when her friend sent her the link, but she didn’t tell her parents about it until she knew she’d gotten on, after several rounds of virtual auditions and interviews.
When she finally told her dad, he was nearly in shock.
“It was hard to keep it a secret,” Boparai said. “I’ve told them over and over, ‘I literally just did this so you can watch your daughter on television.’”
Her parents were chill about the whole thing, but from that point on, preparing for the show consumed her evenings. She watched old games, made color-coded flashcards, went through trivia books, researched what topics appear most, and studied “buzzer theory” — the strategy behind buzzing not too early, not too late, but just at the right time.
Friends got used to visiting her apartment to lead quiz sessions using past clues posted on the website J! Archive, which keeps an extensive catalog of every Jeopardy game. They even spent Halloween night playing through old clues in costume.
The practice with friends was “invaluable,” she said, and in retrospect, it was her favorite part of the experience. “When I look back at my senior year of college, I’ll be like, ‘Those were like the most fun days I’ve ever had in my life.’”
As for the actual time spent playing on the show? She doesn’t remember very much.
“‘I’m gonna be honest, it’s literally like I blacked out,’” Boparai said. “Like, when I rewatch it, I will be learning the questions for the first time.”