During the winter break of his sophomore year, as other students enjoyed snow and a break from homework, Keith Sowell auditioned for "Survivor."
After creating an intricate audition tape for the reality show in his first year at Duke, he decided that his next "Survivor" audition video needed to be more authentic. He went into his living room and spoke into his camera for three minutes. Months later, he received a call during his Spanish class—he was going to be on the next season of "Survivor."
“I was like, ‘This is a [number] I don’t know, so decline.’ But then I saw the voicemail. I said, ‘Can I go use the bathroom?’ I left class—[I] didn’t come back to class,” Sowell, now a junior, said. “It was crazy how fast things were moving.”
Sowell spent this past summer filming Season 38 of the reality television show, entitled "Survivor: Edge of Extinction." Traditionally, the show places strangers in an isolated location—this season it is Fiji—where they must provide for themselves. The number of competitors dwindle as they are voted out by others on the island. This season, eliminated players will have a chance to reenter the game.
Sowell explained that he fell in love with the show because of its competitive nature.
“I was like, ‘I can do that,’ even though I don’t camp, I don’t go outside and eat bugs or all this other stuff—fish, swimming. That’s not me,” he said. “But just the game itself, I fell in love with.”
Sowell said that he told everybody he would be on "Survivor" one day. Although some people were skeptical, he always told himself that it would happen.
At 19 years old, it has now happened for Sowell. He is the youngest of the 18 players on this season and the youngest African-American competitor ever. Being a student at Duke has prepared him for his "Survivor" experience, he said.
“The competitive mentality that everybody has, that ‘Oh, I have to get this A-plus, I have to get this grade, because if I don’t, my future’s going to be at stake,’” he explained. “Just the competitive nature here helped prepare me for the experience—to want to always do good.”
Sowell is majoring in African and African American Studies and is on the pre-medical studies track. His dream is to be a doctor because he enjoys helping people and learning about the human body, he said. Plus, he said, doctors "make money," and he wants to bring his family out of its current economic circumstances.
He emphasized those circumstances in his "Survivor" cast profile, where he notes that he has “already been living against the odds.” He does not come from a family of doctors—he said he would be the first in his family to graduate from college—and he did not even know what class rank was until his junior year of high school, according to his biography.
In the biography, Sowell also wrote that if he could bring three things to the island, he would bring his poetry book, his Black Panther jacket and his Bible.
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Sowell describes himself as religious. He was a youth pastor back at home in Fayetteville, N.C., becoming one at about 14 years old. The junior is also a poet.
“Becoming a youth pastor and getting involved in the poetry community—those were some of the things that took me out of my comfort zone, just because I used to be a shy child,” he said.
He added that these activities honed his skills for making alliances and navigating the community on the island. Being a resident assistant for a first-year dorm last year also prepared him for the experience, he said, by teaching him how to be more open.
Sowell explained that during his first year at Duke, he had two RAs who were impactful in easing his transition from high school to college. It was a tough transition for him, so he wanted to make the transition to college less difficult for others.
However, Sowell has had his own difficult transition between a summer on "Survivor" and his junior year of Duke. A talkative and friendly person, he's found it difficult to keep his big secret.
“How do you focus on work after living one of your dreams?” he asked.
When he did announce last month that he would be on Season 38, he said he had an outpouring of support from family and friends.
“It’s good to know that I have people to fall back on, regardless of how everything [turns] out, I have the safety net of people and people behind me,” he expressed.
Sowell’s season premieres Feb. 20 on CBS at 8 p.m.—one hour before the Duke-North Carolina game tips off.