From Foggy Bottom to Fiji: GW Alumna Featured on 45th Season of ‘Survivor’

Kellie Nalbandian, B.A. ’15, said the show taught her resilience, perseverance and the importance of letting go.

January 19, 2024

Kellie Nalbandian

Kellie Nalbandian, B.A. ’15, was a cast member of the last season of the CBS reality television show "Survivor."

Like many people during the coronavirus pandemic, Kellie Nalbandian, B.A. ’15, sought comfort through television, with “Survivor” quickly becoming her chosen refuge. Little did she know that she would soon find herself as a contestant on the show, where she would have to outwit, outplay and outlast 17 other castaways on Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands.

Nalbandian’s “Survivor” journey began when a coworker introduced her to the show as a reprieve from their demanding roles as ER nurses in pandemic-stricken New York City.

“It became something that we would do together to get away from the horrible reality of what was going on,” said Nalbandian, who began her medical career with GW’s EMeRG program. “I got super into the show and started binging all the seasons.”

Serving as a frontline nurse during the pandemic gave Nalbandian an appreciation for the brevity of life, which in turn inspired her to apply to be on “Survivor.”

“It’s cliché, but life is short, and things can change in a minute, so why not throw my hat in the ring?” she said.

Once on the island, Nalbandian faced an array of challenges that tested her endurance and resourcefulness. From sleeping on the ground in the middle of a deserted island to hunting and cooking her own food, the experience was both physically and mentally demanding.

“It's strange but empowering to know that even when you're really broken down to nothing, you and your body are capable of a lot more than you thought,” she said.

Contrary to common perceptions about reality TV, Nalbandian emphasized that “Survivor” is as real as it gets, with contestants playing the game 24/7, facing constant obstacles and forming alliances that shape the course of the competition.

“We live and play the game every single moment,” she said. “What you see on TV is already a complex social game of betrayals and loyalty and that kind of thing, but after getting out there and playing it, I realized that it’s an even higher level of complexity because you’re always playing the game, all the time.”

Nalbandian leveraged the skills she’s learned as a nurse—such as emotional intelligence and adaptability in high-stress environments—to navigate the social complexities of the game.

“Such a big part of being a nurse is supporting people and shifting yourself to be what that patient needs, and that’s what I took into the game,” she explained. “I tried to meet people where they are and change myself to sort of fit what they wanted to help me build alliances, move forward in the game, and provide some sense of comfort and stability in a place that's very chaotic.”

However, her time on the show ended abruptly when she was blindsided by her closest ally and voted off the island in episode eight, titled "Following a Dead Horse to Water."

“A lesson I'm trying to take from everything, especially because I was eliminated, is being able to move on when things happen that are out of your control,” Nalbandian said. “A large part of going on ‘Survivor,’ and being on reality TV in general, is that there is a little bit of relinquishing of control, so it’s really empowering to know that even when there's literally all this crazy stuff being thrown at the wall, you're stressed all the time and it's chaotic, you can move forward.”

Now back in civilization, Nalbandian is focused on her graduate studies, pursuing a nurse practitioner master's degree at Yale. But she’s leaving the door open for a possible return to “Survivor.”

“I’m open to any opportunities that come my way,” she said. “I’m super competitive, and I didn’t win, so I’m ready to play again.”

The 45th season of “Survivor” premiered on Sept. 27 and concluded on Dec. 20, 2023. All episodes are now streaming on Paramount+.