Carolina junior competes on ‘Jeopardy!’

Stephanie Pierson, a Carolina junior studying history, won her first game in the "Jeopardy! High School Reunion Tournament" on Feb. 22. The win earned her a spot in the semifinals on March 6.

Stephanie Pierson at Jeopardy.
(Photo courtesy Jeopardy)

For years, when 7:30 p.m. rolled around, Stephanie Pierson’s mom knew where to find her daughter.

In the glow of blue squares filling her television screen, Pierson spent her childhood competing with “Jeopardy!” contestants from her home in Macon, Georgia.

“I watched it pretty religiously,” Pierson said. “I would make sure that I cleared it out of my schedule.”

She took the online contestant test for the first time when she was only 10, though she never really expected to see herself on the show. But her childhood dream will come true — for a second time. After having appeared on the show in 2019 as a high school junior, the Tar Heel is returning to the stage.

Pierson, a Carolina junior studying history, is competing on “Jeopardy!” as part of the show’s 14-day High School Reunion Tournament, which brings back 27 former teenage competitors for a chance at a $100,000 prize and a spot in the Tournament of Champions. She won her first game on Feb. 22 to advance to the semifinals on March 6.

A lifelong fan

The daughter of a schoolteacher, Pierson grew up in a house that embraced education and encouraged curiosity. The family’s Brain Quest cards eventually gave way to official competition for Pierson when she joined her elementary school’s Quiz Bowl in fifth grade.

One of her Quiz Bowl coaches suggested the students watch “Jeopardy!” to practice. Pierson took that advice to heart and made the show part of her daily routine. Soon after she started watching, she started taking the online test. It took about five tries before producers from the show called to tell her she had earned a spot in the Teen Tournament.

Pierson and her mom traveled to California during the spring of her junior year of high school so Pierson could compete on the show. The episode she was in aired that summer.

“I had never been to California before, and I was meeting high school students from all over the country. That was a really great experience for me,” Pierson said. “I went on [“Jeopardy!”] just to have fun. I’m not really a super competitive person. I was just smiling the whole time.”

And then Pierson returned home to Macon, where she resumed competing on “Jeopardy!” from her couch, excited to have experienced what she thought was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Returning to the stage

Two years later, as a sophomore at Carolina, Pierson was studying abroad in Granada, Spain, when her mom called to tell her that “Jeopardy!” was trying to get back in touch. A few months later, Pierson was invited to return to the show as part of the reunion tournament. Pierson was initially hesitant. She had already experienced it once, and now she had to balance college with preparing and traveling to California for a four-day shoot.

Ultimately, she decided to go for it. She was largely motivated by the opportunity to see people she had met when she competed in 2019.

“I stayed in contact with the people that I was on the show with,” she said. “I was like, ‘It’s going to be a good experience no matter what.'”

The Jeopardy stage with these contestants.

Stephanie Pierson (far left) taped her appearance on “Jeopardy!” last month, and the episode will air this evening. (Photo courtesy Jeopardy!)

With a round of “Jeopardy!” already under her belt, she knew a little more about what to expect and the game’s nuances.

“Yes, it is a trivia game, but it’s also a test of who can buzz in first, she said. “That’s what I learned from my first time around: 90% of the time, all three contestants know the answer. It’s just a different experience watching on TV when you can yell the answer. But on camera, you have to wait. You have to time it with the host’s voice and anticipate it.”

Pierson flew to California to compete on “Jeopardy!” last month. The knowledge she picked up from her previous experience helped but didn’t make this year’s experience any less nerve-wracking. In fact, Pierson says she was more nervous this time.

“It’s just so different to go from watching on TV to being in the driver’s seat,” she said. “It’s just a lot to keep track of. You have to look at the buzzer. If you get a clue right, you have to pick the next clue. Then you have to think about wagering strategy and, ‘Oh wait. I’m in XYZ place. I need more money.’ You have to be really quick on your feet.”

None of that dampened the experience, however. Pierson was just along for the fun ride that her 10-year-old self could have only dreamed of.

“It was 100% worth the experience,” she said. “The people you’re with make it so much fun. My mom came out, and just her getting to see my play live was a really rewarding experience.”

For the past month, Pierson has kept the results of her appearance a secret — even keeping the fact she was on the show quiet from most people.

“I’m excited for it to air because I’ve changed a lot in the past three years,” she said. “I’m going to be watching the before and after.”