Getting Real

Jessica Chong ’08 Competes as Second Alum Contestant on Emmy-Winning Reality TV Show Survivor
Photos Courtesy of CBS/Paramount

Jessica “Jess” Chong ’08 began her stint on the Emmy-winning reality show Survivor brimming with confidence and hope. She had taken a survival course, had done laps at a local pool near her San Francisco home, and had become adept at solving intricate puzzles—a Survivor staple—that her husband, Chris Clayman, had created with a 3D printer.

A large wooden platform with a slide at the end. There are five people maneuvering a large purple lizard down the slide in an attempt to win a race.
Jessica Chong, left, second from top, and her tribemates carry a 500-pound stuffed gecko through an obstacle course.

Five days into Survivor 46: Fiji, Chong was the second contestant to be voted out of her dysfunctional tribe, but she left the show with a stronger sense of herself. “Somehow, I tapped into a deep well of inner strength, and I managed to be calm amidst the chaos and brutality of my circumstances,” Chong said as she reflected on her experience. “I am proud that I stayed true to myself, and that I didn’t say or do anything that I’d regret while I was out there. So often in mass media, we see Asian/Asian-American people get flattened. I wanted to represent my community in such a way that people would humanize us for all our complexity—the good and the bad, the serious and the silly—and I think I managed to do that.”

Chong, who majored in geography and played rugby while she was at Vassar, said she was touched by the outpouring of support she received from fellow alums. “When [Head Rugby Coach] Tony Brown found out I was going to be on the show, he sent an email blast to the entire Vassar rugby community,” Chong said. “At first, I didn’t want anyone to watch, but since it aired, I’ve received letters and emails from all kinds of people—from eight-year-olds to seniors—who told me they related to my plight, including a lot of people from Vassar that I hadn’t talked to since I was in class or in a dorm with them. I even had a ride-share driver tell me that her ten-year-old daughter was so upset about how I left the game.”

Two people huddled over large blocks in an attempt to assemble a puzzle..
Jessica Chong, right, and her Yanu tribemate, David Jelinsky, solve a puzzle during Survivor, Season 46.

Chong’s post-Vassar life has been studded with changes in her career path. She began her career as a Communications Assistant at the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn, then moved to her native Hong Kong to work in publishing and at a web agency, before embarking on a freelance career as a web designer.

In 2015, she won a scholarship to attend a coding boot camp, and became a software engineer. She first caught the attention of the Survivor casting team in 2019 because of a social media post about her advocacy for scholarships to help people from underrepresented communities transition into careers in software. She currently works at Gamma, a small startup that makes presentation and website software.

Chong said Vassar had prepared her well for all of these roles. “I wanted to go to a college where I could taste the learning buffet, and Vassar was the right place to do that,” she said. “My liberal arts education at Vassar has been immensely valuable in the tech industry, because software engineering is a deeply human endeavor, requiring teamwork, collaboration, and excellent communication skills.”

Jeff Probst, host of Survivor, snuffs Jessica Chong’s torch at the end of a memorable tribal council.

Chong said she had not watched the show when fellow alum Ethan Zohn ’96 won the million-dollar prize in Survivor’s third season in 2002, but she did watch him compete in 2020 in a Survivor: Winners at War all-star episode, in which he finished 11th.

Asked if she would ever consider tackling Survivor again herself, Chong said she might, but only if the format changed, increasing the number of contestants in a tribe. “With six people, there are always going to be three people who bond early and are able to sway the fourth to vote someone off, and there’s nothing you can do,” she said. “Increasing the number in the tribe would make it more fun to play, and more fun for the viewers to watch.”

Nevertheless, Chong said she would not trade the experience for anything. “One of my favorite things about my Survivor experience was having the opportunity after the game to meet people from all walks of life, and connect with them at a deeply human level,” she said. “It has been one of the joys of my adult life to meet new people, hear their stories, and embark on a shared journey together.” 

April 10, 2024
Alums Spotlight