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A not-so-trivial pursuit

Senior Ernesto Ramirez is the first MIT student to compete in the "Hispanic College Quiz" game show.
MIT senior Ernesto Ramirez (right) with two other contestants from the "Hispanic College Quiz" show.
MIT senior Ernesto Ramirez (right) with two other contestants from the "Hispanic College Quiz" show.
Photo: Central City Productions

In high school, Ernesto Ramirez had a routine he followed religiously: Every weeknight, he’d stay up late to watch David Letterman on TV, followed by the “Jeopardy!” game show. “Then I could finally call it a night,” he says. The self-described trivia buff developed a passion for “useless knowledge,” and dreamed of becoming a contestant on a quiz show one day.                 

So it’s no surprise that Ramirez jumped at the chance to compete in the "Hispanic College Quiz," a nationally televised game show series airing this fall. The show was created in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) to encourage a greater understanding of and appreciation for Latino and Hispanic heritage.

Preparing for the show was not a trivial undertaking. This summer, Ramirez — a Course 2 major — spent about five hours a day studying an encyclopedia of Latino and Hispanic history and culture — on top of doing research for the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory's marine robotics group, teaching physics for the Office of Minority Education’s (OME) Interphase EDGE program, and working at Camp Kesem, a summer camp for kids whose parents have been afflicted by cancer.

OME staff coached him three times a week, on topics as varied as the Battle of the Alamo, the Chicano movement, hip-hop, and film. “Ernesto did a really good job of digesting all that info in such a short amount of time,” says Elsie Otero, one of Ramirez’s coaches and an assistant dean in the OME. Ramirez’s other coaches were Tammy Stevens, associate dean in the OME, and DiOnetta Jones Crayton, associate dean and director of the OME.

Ramirez and Crayton traveled to Chicago in late July to tape the show. In all, there were 12 contestants representing colleges around the U.S., from the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn to the University of California at Riverside. The production company divided the students into groups of three and filmed four shows.

“It was a serious competition,” says Crayton. Each show in the series consists of two head-to-head rounds of multiple choice questions, a rapid-fire answer round, and a wager round at the end of the game, in which students bet their points on one question — and risk losing everything if they answer incorrectly. The student with the highest score wins the grand prize: a $3,000 scholarship.

Although the outcome of the show is top secret until it airs, Crayton says Ramirez did very well: “He did a great job representing his family, his culture, and MIT. I felt proud.” But Ramirez’s participation is especially significant, according to Crayton, because in addition to being a first for MIT, it sends an important message about the Institute.

“This is just one way we can show the world that MIT is not only intellectually diverse, but it’s also culturally diverse, and I think that’s important for the world to know,” Crayton says. “Having Ernesto participate opens the door for other students to consider MIT as an option.”

MIT has also helped set a precedent for peer institutions, Crayton says. To date, Columbia University, Cornell University, and MIT are the only Ivy Plus schools that have joined the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), which endorses the "Hispanic College Quiz."  Crayton believes MIT’s participation in the show will help raise HACU’s visibility. “We’re hoping that all of the Ivy Plus schools will seriously consider becoming HACU members, as well,” she says. Other Ivy Plus institutions include Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, NYU, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale.

For Ramirez, the show was about much more than trying to win a scholarship. As the son of Mexican immigrants, he relished the opportunity to learn more about his heritage. “I felt like part of me has never really learned that history,” he says, partly because his mom, who raised three boys on her own, worked long hours and had little free time. “Coming to MIT I’ve been exploring that history,” says Ramirez, who has been actively involved with the OME and the Latino Cultural Center on campus. “Getting the material for the quiz show and learning about it was really eye-opening.”

One of the things Ramirez liked most about the "Hispanic College Quiz" was meeting the other contestants. “They come from all different parts of the nation and different walks of life, and just to hear their stories and what brought them was really fun.” And since the Texas native had never been to Chicago, he enjoyed sightseeing and sampling the local cuisine, like the “classic” Chicago hot dog he had. Normally, he admits, he eats hot dogs without any toppings. But this hot dog — loaded with mustard, relish, pickles, onions, tomatoes, and peppers — “changed my life,” he says. Fitting words for someone whose participation in the "Hispanic College Quiz" may just help change the lives of others.

Airtimes and dates for the Hispanic College Quiz series will be posted on the Office of Minority Education website as they become available.

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