Who is the Florida college student who fulfilled a lifelong dream to be a contestant on Jeopardy?
If personality factored into the Jeopardy! College Championship, Mari Hanley from Stetson University would have walked away with the grand prize of $100,000.
From singing her question about song titles to doing a little dance on set, the junior history major charmed viewers with her positive attitude.
Host Alex Trebek even got into the act, singing his affirmation of her correct response back to her.
For Mari, competing on Jeopardy! was a dream come true.
“I started taking the online tests when I was 8 or 9, first auditioning for Kid’s Week,” says the 20-year-old from Lighthouse Point, Florida. “It took eight tries, but I finally made it.”
Mari kept her quest under wraps. Officials at Stetson found out about Mari’s acceptance after she returned from auditions in New Orleans.
“No one even knew that I was taking the Jeopardy! test except my roommate,” Mari says. “But as soon as the college found out, I became a marketing tool very quickly.”
She is the first student to represent Stetson on the classic game show.
Mari is active in her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, and Phi Alpha Theta—the national history honors society. She also participates in weekly Dungeons and Dragons competitions with fellow students at the home of one of her professors. She works in Stetson’s School of History as a department assistant. Her hobbies include baking.
An avid reader, Mari speaks six languages and is fluent in sign language.
More than 250 students were selected for initial auditions in several U.S. locations.
“I found out on my birthday I’d been selected for the tournament,” Mari says. “My grandmother died last year on my birthday, so it was going to be a sad time this year. But when I heard I’d been selected, I decided that it was part of her birthday present for me from beyond the grave.”
Leading up to her appearances on Jeopardy!, Mari prepared with fellow students, faculty and Stetson alumni.
In January, Jeopardy! paid Mari’s expenses for a four-day trip to Los Angeles, which included two full days of taping. She took her sorority little sister, Tyler Thomas. Mari’s parents traveled to Los Angeles at their own expense. All were in the studio audience.
On campus, friends tried to get Mari to fess up about her experience, but she had signed a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting her from spilling the beans.
“People teased me to try and find out, but once they realized I wouldn’t say, they accepted it,” Mari says.
When the quarterfinals episode aired February 22, friends and sorority sisters hosted a viewing party. Mari finished second, which left her status for the semifinals in limbo. But her score secured one of four wildcard positions.
“We found out on the last day of the quarterfinals taping who would move on to the semis,” she says. “I was so nervous. They called out everyone’s name in alphabetical order by their school, so I was the next to the last one to be called. I was praying the Pater Nostra really hard in Latin the whole time.”
For her semifinals appearance, Mari faced Netanel Paley from Yeshiva University and Gary Tse, a freshman at the U.S. Naval Academy. Gary advanced, finishing second overall and winning $50,000. MIT senior Lilly Chin from Georgia won the title, the $100,000 grand prize and a berth in the next Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions.
With her pixie haircut and round, tortoise-shell glasses, Mari appeared to be a mixture of seriousness and fun.
That came through in a story Trebek shared with viewers as he introduced Mari in the quarterfinals.
“We were asked to send in about 10 stories so that the producers had choices for Alex,” Mari says. “They picked my butterfly release at my high school graduation. What we didn’t get to talk about was that I sat through mass, three speeches and about one-fourth of our class being called before I walked across the stage and released the butterflies. All that time I had the butterflies that had been frozen in a little mesh bag under my robe. They were really warmed up and ready to go by the time I walked the stage.”
Has her brush with fame changed her?
“Not really,” Mari says. “But I am so thankful that I finally was able to compete on Jeopardy! Someone asked me which was tougher: Stetson final exams or being on Jeopardy! and face-to-face with Alex Trebeck. The answer is Stetson finals. After all, we’re the Harvard of the South.”