Columbia native, Dreher high grad competing on ‘Jeopardy’

Columbia native Nilanka Seneviratne poses with ‘Jeopardy’ host Alex Trebek.
Columbia native Nilanka Seneviratne poses with ‘Jeopardy’ host Alex Trebek.

While sitting in the audience awaiting his turn to compete on “Jeopardy,” Nilanka Seneviratne couldn’t believe the final question: This university on John C. Calhoun’s former plantation is named for Calhoun’s son-in-law, who gave the land.”

Wearing his bright orange tie, he knew the answer was his alma mater, Clemson University. The contestant who ended up winning that episode gave the wrong answer.

But Seneviratne will get his chance on Jeopardy, which will air at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on ABC.

When he was a child, Seneviratne said, his parents were strict about what television shows he could watch. But they always made exceptions for the nightly news and “Jeopardy.”

Born and raised in Columbia, Seneviratne grew up attending Rosewood and Brennan elementary schools, Hand Middle School and Dreher High School before studying psychology at Clemson.

After graduation, he came back to Columbia, took some classes at the University of South Carolina and also volunteered in Sri Lanka before settling in Washington, D.C., in 2005.

He is now a deputy director at PartnersGlobal, which he said builds local nonprofits around the world.

Though he’s been a fan of “Jeopardy” for years, he decided to apply to be a contestant on a whim. He took the online test, which about 60,000 people take every year. Of those, 3,000 are selected to advance to the interview stage.

Luckily for Seneviratne, the interviews in Washington were a block away from his office. He was selected as one of the 400 people per year to fly out to Los Angeles to compete on the show.

“I was super excited,” he said. “I felt like had a chance.”

Seneviratne said the show filmed a week’s worth of episodes on Jan. 23, and he was even able to tell a story about his Dreher High Latin class during the interview segment.

Seneviratne still considers Columbia his home and comes back often to visit family, including his mother, who is a teacher at Montessori School of Columbia.

“Columbia is still near and dear to my heart,” he said.

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