Adult learners often return to community colleges to make a career switch. For Lawrence Long, that was a switch from the dining and entertainment industry to health care – and more recently, Jeopardy! champion.
Long, a North Carolina native and nursing student at Forsyth Technical Community College, won three consecutive games of the trivia show Jeopardy! earlier in February. He left the show with more than $75,000 in winnings.
It’s always exciting to see someone from your home state competing on the show, but for the Forsyth Tech community, that feeling was compounded by seeing someone represent North Carolina’s community colleges so well.
“We are so proud of Lawrence and his amazing Jeopardy! run,” said Devin Purgason, director of college relations, marketing, and communication at Forsyth Tech. “Not only is he brilliant, but he is compassionate and a phenomenally competent health sciences student. At Forsyth Tech, we are trailblazers – and Lawrence fully embodies that spirit.”
But for Long, this achievement was just one more way his life has changed since the start of the pandemic.
As a self-described bullheaded college freshman, he was determined to study what people told him was the hardest (specifically, chemical engineering), but he soon learned that wasn’t a good reason to do something.
It did, however, help the future trivia champion learn not only how to approach challenges, but what he actually does like to study.
“What I actually found during that time period was that my interests were in the tactile manufacturing of things, which I was doing more in theater shop than I was doing in any sort of engineering classes,” he said.
After graduating with an English major from Clemson University, his career experience took him all over the country — drama school in Colorado, a sommelier job in Chicago, and work at a family entertainment center in New Mexico.
He came back to North Carolina when his niece was born in 2010. He eventually wound up at Forsyth Tech, completing his EMT certification in February 2020 and preparing for the opening night of his play, “The Normal Heart.”
A month later, the pandemic hit, and his family faced a tough choice.
“I was looking at EMT starting salaries, and it was $12 to $13 an hour, and I really appreciated the work of the EMTs, but it was a mess during COVID,” he said.
The cost of child care would have been more than he would have made working, he said, so he became a stay-at-home caretaker for his niece while his sister continued to work.
Long had previously auditioned for Jeopardy! in 2013 and made it into the pool of contestants but was never chosen. After several months of staying home during the pandemic, he decided on a whim to audition for the show again.
He says his time prepping for the show coincided well with his responsibilities to his niece.
“When she started her (online) schooling, I was supplementing that, and I wanted her to learn the state capitals,” he said. “So I incentivized it by telling her that if she did learn all the states and the state capitals, that I would take her to the one of her choosing.”
It only took her about three weeks, he said. He plans to use part of his winnings to take her to Hawaii, her state of choice.
“We have this pull-off calendar that has pictures of islands on it, and I was trying to convince her for a while that all the pictures of Hawaii were actually in Kansas,” he explained with a laugh. “.. and she was like, ‘There are no volcanoes in Kansas,’ and I would tell her, you know, if they did have them in Kansas, they would probably want to hide them so that people didn’t know that they were there.”
He’s also donating a portion of his winnings to a textbook fund for Forsyth Tech students, highlighting how those costs can be a barrier for students.
When his niece returned to in-person learning last year, he decided to continue pursuing a health care career and went back to Forsyth Tech to study nursing.
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for him, but not for the reasons you might think.
His play finally premiered as his Jeopardy! episodes were airing, so he says he was more focused on the dress rehearsals than his newfound celebrity. He’s also in the middle of prepping for his upcoming certification exams for nursing.
Now that his experience with the show is over, he doesn’t think much has changed for him.
“If I had won 40 games or something like that, I think that the spotlight would be a lot more intense,” he said. “I come from the fine dining industry, and they call that an amuse-bouche. It’s just a small, tiny little course that leaves them wanting more, and I think that’s a good way to go about it.”