Northeastern students impress in first appearance on historic BBC quiz show

Screen capture of four students on the University Challenge game show.
Courtesy photo

LONDON — What is the third-most spoken Indigenous language of Nigeria?

To what word, first used in 1664, was a new sense added in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2022, with its first citation in 2007?

Kings Cross Station is named for a monument erected in the 1830s featuring which king?

Who was the 1980s world darts champion who struggled with the yips?

If these questions seem hard, you’ll be impressed to know that, on Great Britain’s prestigious game show University Challenge this week, a team of Northeastern University students got all of them right.

A group of four students participated in the 60-year-old quiz show for the first time in the university’s history on Monday, exceeding expectations to earn 120 points against York University. 

A formidable foe, York took the win, but the Northeastern team still has much to be proud of. For one thing, it became part of a show that holds a special place in Great Britain’s culture. You can ask any Brit about University Challenge, and they’ll know what you’re talking about. 

“I’ve watched the show at home for years,” said Chloe Rogers, a history, politics and international relations major, and the team’s captain.

“It’s almost like an institution,” said Colin Garwood, a recent Northeastern graduate with a master’s degree in philosophy and a team member.

First debuting in 1962, University Challenge has undergone few changes over the years. It has only had three hosts, with the current being Amol Rajan, known for a fast-paced style that moves the competition along quickly.

Players are quizzed on anything from organic chemistry to restoration literature to popular music and much more, with convoluted questions that can boggle the mind. 

Northeastern’s team members had their work cut out for them. York has appeared on the show 28 times, and has nearly 20,000 students. York also has its own quiz club. 

That didn’t deter Northeastern students, who responded to a student union email last year saying they were holding tryouts. 

Rogers was one of them.

“I thought, ‘Well it would be silly to not go for it,’” she said. 

Rogers remembers Monday nights growing up, when game shows typically appeared on the TV in her family home. 

“We called it quiz night in our house,” she said. “Eventually, because I’d been watching it long enough, I’d start to get some answers right.”

She answered the call, along with a couple dozen other students, including Garwood. The students all competed in tryouts with practice questions before the team was chosen, including Rogers, Garwood, Seamus Conlon and Benjamin Schmale. To their delight, the producers selected them to appear on the show.

But then came their first real challenge. How does one study for something like this? 

Very widely, said Rogers. 

The members of the team each had different strengths. 

“We each had some areas where we were trying to see if we could fill some gaps,” said Garwood, who brought a science and economic background.

Together, they watched old episodes of the show, learning the different strategies that one might arrive at an answer. They also assigned each other different areas of general knowledge to study, including facts that they might consider “random.”

“I was able to label pretty much the 50 states of the U.S.,” said Rogers, who lives in Cambridge, U.K. “A lot of it is just trying to absorb as much knowledge as you can and a lot of random facts that may come in handy.” 

Then, it was time to film. Though the episode aired Monday, it was actually filmed in February in Manchester in front of a small studio audience (Garwood said with a chuckle that people around him wished him good luck before the show aired, not knowing the competition was taped). Seated together with a small stuffed husky on their desk for luck, the team was ready to go. 

Garwood knew the name of the darts champion (Eric Bristow), something he attributes to one advantage he brought to the team: age. The answer put Northeastern behind with 15 points to York’s 85.

Then, things started to turn around. Garwood knew the king for whom King’s Cross Station is named (George IV). Conlon correctly identified a Diana Ross song. Then he knew a word that was edited in the OED in 2022 (influencer). They pulled within 80-85.

It wasn’t until Rajan announced that the team’s bonus questions would be on Ireland that Rogers knew things were going to turn around. Hearing this, she looked down and smiled — Ireland was her specialty and the subject of her dissertation. She answered one of the next questions without even consulting her team. 

“I just straight up said it, because I was really happy that I knew it,” she said. 

The answer put the team ahead, 100 to 80. Their score peaked at 120 to York’s 105 before York came from behind to finish with 190 points.

Naturally, Team Northeastern went home with some what-ifs.

“You remember the ones you got wrong,” Rogers said. “It’s exciting but also frustrating knowing that we could have closed the gap if we’d just buzzed in when we actually knew the answer.”

However, they were happy to get the chance to compete. 

“I’m still really proud of our performance,” Rogers said. “It was such a fun experience.” As the captain, Rogers took a leadership role on the team, and took the responsibility very seriously. Rogers watched the show with a friend as it aired, saying afterwards, “I feel lucky to have had so much support from friends and family.” 

For her part, Rogers hopes that the team left a legacy for Northeastern, so the next team can do even better. 

“Hopefully in future years we can see an NU London team go even further!” she said.