Wednesday, June 26, 2013
By Kenneth P. Serbin
Chair, Department of History
From reality TV star to election to Phi Beta Kappa to acceptance at Harvard Law School, history major Evelyn Smith (class of 2013) has gained multiple views of the increasing complexity of human experience.
A 2005 graduate of Edgemont Junior/Senior High in Scarsdale, NY, Evelyn embarked on an odyssey with Music Television Network’s reality competition The Challenge, travelling to various points of the globe and eventually winning, among the women, an unsurpassed three of the program’s championships.
Before one rushes to the conclusion that Evelyn simply jumped on the bandwagon of an early 21st-century celebrity culture epitomized by reality shows and their purported illustration of “reality,” it’s worth hearing her intellectual analysis of the phenomenon.
“I promise you – it’s raw, and it’s real,” says Evelyn. “Some people ham it up for the cameras, but there’s certainly no script we’re following.”
Without any acting experience, but deeply attracted to competition, Evelyn answered a casting call for The Challenge fresh out of high school.
“I love The Challenge because I enjoy the competitions – testing yourself and that rush you get when you’ve eliminated someone from the competition,” she says. “I did it because it looked like a lot of fun.”
The specific challenges included scaling heights, a hockey-style demolition derby with competitors knocking cars into goals, sky-diving, bungee jumping, rock climbing, survival tests in foreign lands, and sometimes eating “copious amounts of disgusting food,” Evelyn explains.
“You’re filmed 24 hours per day,” she adds.
Occasionally uncomfortable on campus when recognized from the program, Evelyn says she shuns celebrity. She also criticizes many aspects of reality shows and the entertainment industry in general.
“Honestly, I don’t care for it,” she says. “I don’t actually have a television. I’m not interested in viewing reality TV shows.
“The History Channel, for instance,doesn’t exist anymore as it once did. It’s been deluged with reality shows about lumberjacks and truckers and alien conspiracy theories.”
So does the “reality” show actually leave people disconnected from “real reality”?
“No, it’s a sign of the times,” Evelyn says. “You can learn a lot about America from the reality TV shows that it watches.”
Shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians “I just don’t understand,” she says. Degrading oneself on national TV is “pathetic,” she adds.
After three years on the program, Evelyn studied at USD during the 2008-2009 academic year. She returned to the program in 2009. In 2010-2011, she reenrolled to USD to complete her degree.
“All told, I did quite well financially on the show,” Evelyn recalls. “I got to spend my late teens and early twenties traveling the world and living like a rock star. It’s been difficult walking away from that to go back to school.”
However, as a brilliant student, Evelyn has great intellectual ambitions.
“I know that long-term reality television is not what I want to do with my life,” she says. “I would hardly call it a career. It’s fun while it lasts, but you see a lot of washed up reality stars.
“I’d rather do something that leaves me with a greater sense of accomplishment. I do have goals and there are things I want to achieve. I can do so much more with my life than reality television.”
College is less exciting, she admits, “but I feel that I’m advancing myself towards a career that is actually meaningful. In that sense, it’s more real than what I’ve done on those reality shows. Looking back in 20 years, I’m going to have my degree, but the reality TV money and fame is going to be long-gone. I think a lot of people on reality TV don’t take that into consideration.”
Relatively close to Hollywood yet isolated enough to permit her to concentrate on her studies, USD provided Evelyn with the right formula to potentially stay involved in television and excel academically.
“I liked that it was a small private school,” she observes. “I like the small class sizes and liberal arts focus.”
Evelyn found an intellectual home in the History Department, where Professors James Gump, Molly McClain, and Kathryn Statler in particular served as mentors.
The history faculty impressed Evelyn with their depth and breadth of research in foreign cultures and their ability to transmit the wealth of their own experiences in the classroom, Evelyn recalls.
“I’ve always loved history,” she says. “I read history books for fun. I find it fascinating. I’m generally big on the humanities. Philosophy, English, and history have always been my favorite subjects.”
Studying history also led Evelyn to delve into a profound, different kind of reality: the often harsh but also promising human experience.
“To me history is a story, only it’s true and it’s intriguing,” she says.
In addition to her election to Phi Beta Kappa, Evelyn was inducted into the History honor society, Phi Alpha Theta. She graduated summa cum laude.
As she prepares to enter Harvard, Evelyn is setting her sights on transforming yet another dimension of reality that has become a hot-button issue in global culture: the struggle for gay rights. After law school, Evelyn plans to perhaps practice entertainment law and/or enter politics. In either case, she will seek social justice for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community in the U.S.
Evelyn has lived openly as a lesbian since high school. On The Challenge, she witnessed a commitment to racial/ethnic and gender diversity, she says.
For the nation as a whole, however, Evelyn says, “there’s still a long way to go.”
“Presently there is not equality,” she says. “Until there is, it’s going to be important to me.”
During her senior year, Evelyn was “disappointed” by the incident involving President Mary Lyons’ decision to disinvite a guest speaker, Catholic theologian Tina Beattie, who is sympathetic to gay rights.
“The school reacted in a manner that was prejudicial and blatantly homophobic and not encouraging at all of academic openness,” Evelyn says. “I would say it was ultimately positive to see how energetically students and faculty came out voicing their opposition to that. It kind of flew in the face of what this school claims to stand for. It just sends a message that LGBT people are somewhat unwanted here, or that they’re not entitled to the same rights as others are.”
However, Evelyn says she also wants “to make clear” that she “never encountered any (personal) discrimination on this campus.”
She also notes areas of progress for the LGBT community.
“Even in the time I’ve been at USD, I’ve seen an increase in the visibility of our community,” she says, citing in particular special support and encouragement for the community from Dr. Evelyn Kirkley of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and Dr. Larry Hinman of the Department of Philosophy. “I think that’s important for the diversity of the school. It’s important for the school to demonstrate that it is accepting of LGBT students and faculty.”
Kenneth P. Serbin