Survivor 2020: College in the age of COVID-19

Monday, August 31, 2020 - 3:08pm

—

At the beginning of July, a new season of “Survivor Michigan,” the University of Michigan’s own fan-made version of the hit CBS reality show, started airing on Youtube on Wednesday nights. I wasn’t watching as a curious, objective viewer, though — in that season, filmed in the fall of 2018, I was a contestant. It felt surreal watching the fall of my freshman year play out episode by episode from my bedroom at home in 2020, preparing to return to a campus and a campus experience unlike anything on screen. 

At the time my Survivor season was filmed, I was a completely clueless freshman — not only had I never seen an episode of the CBS show (I still haven’t, whoops), but I hadn’t even moved to campus when I was cast. Still, I knew I wanted to be a part of something when I first arrived at the University, and Survivor it was. The show was my introduction to campus and to college: I had my first Survivor “challenge” before I even went to my first class, was picked up from one of my first rowing practices by a tribemate to discuss strategy in the car, filmed a confessional with a castmate at a Glee party shortly after auditioning and made my first trip to north campus for filming.  

In CBS Survivor contestants battle the elements on an island while competing in challenges, searching for “idols” to grant immunity and voting out other members of the cast. In College Survivor, of which there are several around the country, we get to sleep in our own beds, but the setting of a college campus provides plenty of its own challenges. Sharing text screenshots, for example, is fair game in “Survivor Michigan,” challenges often run past midnight to accommodate the work and club schedules of contestants and the stress of the game combined with the stress of college can create some deeply emotional moments. 

The cast and crew of “Survivor Michigan” consists of a diverse mix of students: The original Survivor buffs, people who kind of want to be famous, people who really want to be famous, people interested in TV production and a small faction of people who stumbled into the community through friends or roommates (or Facebook, in my case). I was one of only two freshmen on the cast, which made my feud with a fellow tribemate and PhD student later in the season even more jarring. 

The plot of each episode is built, in large part, through “confessionals.” For me, those were usually videos I filmed on Photo Booth, essentially serving as video diaries. In one, I am eating cake that a church group was giving out in the Diag late one night as I walked home from Glee Club. In another, my cheeks are bright red and I’m wearing a long sleeve workout shirt, bringing me back to the memory of my first few months as a coxswain on the Men’s Rowing Team, when I was never dressed warmly enough, when it sometimes took almost an hour to regain feeling in my fingers after practice. In one video, I am sitting with the aforementioned nemesis in the East Quad BluCafe for a strategy conversation. The conversation went from strategic to tearful when I began recounting how homesick I was in October of my freshman year. I am wearing a sweatshirt over my pajamas and look exhausted as I am unable to muster the lie needed for me to stay in the game. 

There is no crystal ball — and rarely even a Youtube series — that allows us to watch our past play out. Watching myself collaborate over coffee, car rides and even at house parties felt a touch voyeuristic, and I constantly felt the urge to reach through the screen and coach my freshman self, through both the game and through college. The show is as much about the Michigan experience as it is about the game of Survivor, if you watch closely. We see inside bedrooms, labs, libraries and dining halls. We see roommates poking fun at contestants for filming confessionals. We see one contestant definitively declare any gameday Saturday a “complete burn day.” As I watched, the lines between Survivor and college got blurry, triggering intense nostalgia for the walks in the arb, dinner in off-campus apartments and ridiculous games at midnight on the Wave Field that make these four years into much more than an academic experience. 

As I watched the first episode of my season from my bed, almost two years after it was initially filmed, I felt like I entered the alternate universe of the “before.” There I was, shaking hands with my future Tormenta tribemates on the Diag during Labor Day weekend, oblivious to the fact that such enthusiastic greetings would one day become dangerous. In that moment, as I watched the pixelated version of myself exchange close laughs with a fellow tribe-member, I couldn’t help but mourn Fall 2020.

Now every interaction has a purpose and every trip into a building is quick and transactional. If I were to play Survivor in 2020, I doubt I would accidentally bump into contestants having a meeting in Espresso Royale. So much of Survivor — and college — happens when you aren’t expecting it. In the age of masks and social distancing, I don’t stop for a couple minutes of small talk and light gossip, and yet, that is how most relationships start, during the downtime at in-person events. What a luxury it was to sit face to face just to get to know someone, especially if I was pretty sure I wouldn’t end up working with them. 

In Week Six of the show, I was voted out. I knew it was coming, of course, but I was nervous for the entire day as I waited for the eight o’clock episode — dreading watching my naiveté play out on screen. But it wasn’t as hard to watch as I thought it would be, aside from an unfortunate clip of me obliviously sucking on a Laffy Taffy all throughout tribal council. Like any new experience, I had simply played with the knowledge and skills I had then. I’m not exactly proud of the game that I played, but I am proud that I played it fully, without letting myself feel intimidated by my inexperience or age. At times, I got overwhelmed and let the game fall to the wayside. That’s part of the freshman experience, too. 

The irony of watching “Survivor” during a global pandemic is not lost on me. There aren’t going to be memory challenges and cup stacking competitions on the Diag at midnight this semester, but similar creativity will be needed to sort through the challenges of the year. As a community, we will need to figure out how to socialize safely, meet new people and hold peers to a high standard without turning on each other.

Our children will learn about this pandemic in school and they will ask us about it. Did we follow public health guidance? Sacrifice parties? Were we considerate with our masks? While leadership on the federal and university levels have failed us, we still are accountable for the individual actions we make in these coming months. 

There may not be a Youtube series, but we will look back on 2020 and we will judge ourselves in much the same way that I judge my 2018 self. In Survivor, choices of who to align with, who to lie to and where to search for “idols” have consequences that reverberate throughout the game. Only watching two years later was I finally able to see the results of some of my game decisions. The decisions we make now, as individuals and as a society, will have a ripple effect — and not just for a few weeks in a game, but for years, on lives and the economy. 

Jessie Mitchell is a junior in LSA studying Psychology and can be reached at jessiemi@umich.edu.