‘Surviving’ the college experience: meet the students bonded by blindsides and betrayal

Before attending college, most people expect to be met with 8am classes, exams and a lot of alcohol (once they’re over the age of 21, of course). But for a group of students at Northeastern University, it’s blindsides, hidden immunity idols and gruelling challenges are the unexpected reality they find themselves lucky enough to face.

That’s because these students play a college, student-run version of the CBS reality show Survivor, where their main goal is to scheme against each other as round by round they vote a fellow cast member out.

“People really don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into until the first day is over.”

Casey Abel, founder of Survivor Northeastern

Since 2017, the club has produced five seasons and seen 88 contestants battle for the title of Sole Survivor, all alongside their studies at the Boston located campus. Perhaps Casey Abel, the founder of Survivor Northeastern, puts it best: “People really don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into until the first day is over.”

Casey, who attended Northeastern for both undergrad and graduate studies, first got the idea to begin the club through people she had met whilst playing online versions of Survivor. These Online Reality Games see contestants compete and vote each other out via social media outlets, such as Skype. Through playing these games, Casey discovered Survivor Maryland, another college version of the game, and reached out to its host to see if she would be able to pull off something similar at Northeastern. Now, just over two years later, it’s safe to say that she did.

“I had no idea what I hoped to achieve, the goal was to make my own show with the footage,” says Casey on the beginning of the club. During its first season there was a production team of only three people, including Casey who also hosted the challenges and Tribal Councils. Casey would ask players to self film their confessionals (videos of them talking about what they think is really happening in the game) and tried to get as much of the show as possible on camera in order to make her episodes. Most of the show’s establishing season, however, was not recorded due to the small production team – but Casey believes the original season featured “some of the most exciting gameplay we’ve had” and that “each season gets better and better.”

The cast photos for all five seasons of Survivor Northeastern

The show now has four committees of Marketing, Challenge Design, Logistics and TV Production to ensure every aspect of the game is prepared for. The production team has roughly forty people that work around the clock to plan the game and run it smoothly once a new season begins at the start of each semester. After a season ends, players are given the option to apply for positions on production in an effort to keep everyone involved in the club and to keep it running for future semesters and new groups of students.

Despite the first season being mostly off camera, footage from all five seasons has started to be edited into 30-45-minute-long episodes which are gradually being uploaded to YouTube.

Dan Mondschein is the Head of TV Production for the club and oversees the editing of the episodes once the season is filmed in its entirety. He claims that the “process of editing Survivor is sort of like writing a book” due to the lengthy process and deciding which footage to include: “This is the part that really taxes you intellectually, because you have a vision for how to best tell the story, but translating that to the page or the screen is much easier said than done.”

Each episode tends to focus on one round of the game, as with the CBS version of the show. This usually entails the contestants competing in a challenge for immunity, with the losing competitors having to go to Tribal Council where they must anonymously cast their votes to eliminate another player.

Season 2, Episode 1 of Survivor Northeastern – the first full episode of the show to be released, edited by Tim McQuaid

Challenges to win immunity can range in time from minutes to hours and test the players physically, mentally and emotionally in order to make the experience as authentic as possible. Rob Mennuti, the host of the last two seasons as well as a former contestant, sees challenges as one of the most enjoyable elements of the club.

They “are always fun because they involve so many aspects,” Rob states. Challenges range from escape rooms to wrestling each other in a sand pit for a piece of fabric – a club favourite they call ‘Fox Tails’.  

“Fox Tails is always a lot of fun because it’s the most physical challenge. Physical challenges are a big thing on Survivor, and we try not to do that too much just because we don’t want to get anybody hurt, but seeing Fox Tails and those one on one match ups are always really fun to see.

Challenges are such an integral part of the club that the Challenge Design Committee oversees production members planning and creating games the contestants will ultimately play. The Committee tests the challenges to ensure they can be played without fault as their main priority is to get everything ready for the players. Planning a single challenge often takes the group several hours across multiple meetings and can run into the middle of the night as they must find time to meet that does not interfere with their studies.

One production member, Jessie Spradling, found challenge design to be one of the most enjoyable parts of her Survivor experience after she played in season four and helped to produce season five: “Being on production, my favorite part of this last season was making things for challenges because it’s so fun to see something you created get used and enjoyed by 20 different people.”

Jessie is an Art and Design major at Northeastern University, and utilizes the skills she has from her undergraduate degree when it comes to producing the show. She once spent over four hours hand drawing and laser engraving the club’s logo into wooden discs for a challenge – the club often utilizes its member’s skillsets in this way to deliver the highest quality game they can, despite their limited resources.

One of the props Jessie made for a season five challenge

Members meet several times a week when a season is ongoing, be it to film something for the show or to have a production meeting. The club begins producing a season at the start of each semester and often runs all the way up to finals week. With a cast of 16-20 students and a production team of double that amount, it is down to Ravi Pandya, the Head of Logistics for the club and Supply Chain Management graduate at Northeastern, to get them all in the same place at the same time.

“This role is in charge of scheduling out the game…making sure confessionals get done for every player, and making sure a production member is there to film alliance meetings. What I’m most proud of is that in season three, there was a huge bystander effect because it was the first time we had a large production team, but before season four I gave people responsibilities…so that they felt accountable for their role in running the season.”

For host of seasons four and five Rob, the intense schedule of this club is one of his favourite things about it: “What’s nice about Survivor is, yes you know you have the community of people who like each other and are friends and stuff, but the common thread of having a current season going on kind of enables that, and you’re seeing them you know, one, two, three, four times a week whether it be in meetings or challenges and so just kind of seeing them so frequently builds up the friendship and…having that kind of comradery in a group of people and seeing them so frequently was certainly a highlight of being on production.”

To stay in the game, players form ‘alliances’ with each other, typically with the promise that they will not vote for each other in order to stay in the game longer. Meetings between alliances are filmed on campus, at each other’s houses and sometimes anywhere that they can find privacy (one season five meeting between two players was filmed in a copy room, no less).

These alliances can be incredibly powerful, and can see certain players dominate the season and control who goes home if they have enough votes on their side. However, the $100 prize in this version of the game is a far cry from the one million dollars the CBS show boasts and this has been known to impact the way people play.

Joe Lynch, who placed third on the show’s fourth season, helped to produce season five and once spent six hours following and filming a player as they moved between different groups of people, looked for hidden immunity idols and strategized about the game.

A hidden immunity idol from the show’s fifth season, the thing cast members spend hours searching campus for which can negate votes against them and keep them in the game if used correctly

 “It’s kind of fun knowing what’s happening when everyone else is panicking,” says Joe about one of favourite aspects of being on production.

For Jessie, the biggest challenge she faced as a player was “balancing the competition and game side of the club with my friendships.” As the game is ultimately a college club, players get to know each other outside of it in a much different way than if they were stranded on an island.

She went on to say: “To a certain point it became impossible for me to vote out my friends because we had gotten too close for me to let a game impact that relationship, but it was hard in the beginning to know when to listen to my competitive side and when to give up in the face of preserving my friendships.”

This is not the mind-set of everyone that plays, however, and one person that knows that all too well is Ravi, who was a vote that sent his best friend Alex Sharp home from the game. Ravi played in the show’s inaugural season before joining production and made the decision because he was not confident he could beat him if they made it to the finale together.

“I had to be upfront with him and vulnerable which is not something I’m good at but I’ve gotten better because of situations like this,” Ravi says about one of the most positive aspects of being involved with the club. Ravi is graduating this semester and leaving the group behind, but he claims he got to see everything come full circle in a way that only this club could make possible when Alex managed to win the fifth season of the show two years later.

In a twist the club has only done once before, returning players were invited back for a second chance at the game when four of them were given a spot on the season, titled All or Nothing.

“I couldn’t sleep that night – so many emotions, thoughts and adrenaline,” says Ravi when describing watching his friend win. “We talked for an hour just reflecting on the night and the past two years. That night, we both won Survivor.”

Despite being a game seemingly about betrayal and deception, the show element of Survivor Northeastern is often not the most important one for those that produce and play it. The reality of the club is that once the season ends, the players are left with each other and the relationships they built.

For Jessie, this game changed her entire Northeastern experience. Despite being a sophomore, this was her first year at the school due to being a transfer student.

“I knew that it would be harder to meet people as a transfer because there are a lot less ways to meet people than there are when you’re a freshman and everyone else is trying to meet new friends as well,” Jessie says on her initial fear of changing schools. “I expected to meet some new people and get out of my box a little bit when I joined Survivor but I got so much more than I bargained for. I met a couple of my best friends through this club, I met my boyfriend and I gained an entire friend group that I never expected to have.”

Rob’s experience is perhaps the most telling of what this club can do for an individual, as when he started at Northeastern he was “incredibly introverted” and had a lack of “social skills,” though this quickly changed once he joined the club.

Survivor came along and I kind of took it by the reigns and made it my thing; and so you know, there’s so many things I’ve gotten out of it. Obviously friendships, experiences, leadership experiences, I’ve never had a really like leadership role and I think I did pretty well in my time as the host of Survivor.”

For Casey, founding Survivor Northeastern has been the best part of her college career: “In a lot of cases I really think it’s helped students break out of their shells and I think I’ve seen a lot of people come out of the experience with an awareness about themselves that they’ve never had before. I feel like I’ve brought together a group of people who typically wouldn’t be friends but this rollercoaster of an experience really brings people together.”

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