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I Am MSGL: Carissa Pekny

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek with Carissa Pekny during the 2016 College Championships.
Photo courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

     Montessori School of Greater Lafayette (MSGL) alumna Carissa Pekny appeared this week on the “Jeopardy! 2016 College Championship.” A senior studying environmental science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Carissa was one of 15 contestants competing this week on the TV game show for a chance at a $100,000 prize. Carissa graduated from second grade at MSGL in 2002.

     You can watch the contestant preview video here:

     Carissa almost didn’t take the call the day an unknown number from Culver City, California showed up on her phone. She gets a lot of phone solicitations and was going to ignore it, but she answered and heard, “Hi, this is Amy from ‘Jeopardy!’” That call was the end of a two-month process that started with an online test in November. Approximately 3,000 students took the online test and Carissa was one of the few who moved on to the regional audition.

     “They tell you (at the regional audition) that if you get a call in a few weeks, you will be on the show. If you don’t get a call and you don’t see yourself on the “Jeopardy! College Championship” episode in February, you’ll know you didn’t make it,” she said.

     Carissa did make it to the show and she took her parents Joe and Chris, her sister Chelsea, and a West Point friend along to Universal Studios when the show was filmed over two days in January. There were fourteen other contestants and they filmed five tournament episodes each day. She described the “Jeopardy!” studio as being much different than she expected.

     “You watch them on TV and think the studio is massive, but the studio is actually really small. There is room for maybe 100 people in the audience,” she said.

     Carissa has always liked trivia and she and her mom would compete against each other while watching the TV show at home.

     “Jeopardy has been my mom’s dream, too,” she said.

     In fact, Carissa was surprised to hear just how excited her mom really was. When she told her parents she was accepted into medical school in November, her mom was happy. But Carissa wasn’t prepared for her response to the spot on “Jeopardy! College Championship.” 

     “When I called to tell her, I said, ‘Wow, you didn’t even act this happy when I called you a month ago!’” she said.

     Carissa started out strong in the first round of the quarterfinals on Monday answering questions about science, history, and popular music, but ultimately it was Emily Sun, a freshman from Columbia University, who advanced to the semi-finals. Carissa said she was a little nervous at first, but her experience as an athlete helped her concentrate on the task at hand.

     "Just like any sports game, I was able to focus my nervous energy into focusing on answering the questions and buzzing in on the buzzer," she said.

     Carissa’s natural curiosity might be at the heart of her love for trivia. She discovered an affinity for research when she was in Marshall Overley’s chemistry class at West Lafayette High School. After graduating in 2012, she moved on to West Point where she started doing malaria research in her sophomore year. That interest led her to spend 3 ½ weeks in Australia working at the Australian Army Malaria Institute.

     “This was a way to do things that I liked doing that had implications for medical research,” Carissa said.

Carissa Pekny, second from left, during Ring Weekend at West Point.

     She plans to continue in the field of medical research next year as she begins medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

     In high school, Carissa was an accomplished athlete who played on the WLHS soccer, basketball, and softball teams. When she arrived at West Point in July of 2012 for Beast Barracks, West Point’s Cadet Basic Training, she thought she was physically fit but discovered she wasn’t really prepared for that level of physical conditioning.

     “I’m not much for quitting things so I decided to stick it out until the school year and not do anything too brash,” she said.

     That decision paid off when it became clear that even though she may not have been physically prepared for basic training, she was academically prepared for a challenging course load. On top of becoming a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, every West Point graduate receives a Bachelors of Science degree, no matter what their major, because of the required core of math and science classes. 

Carissa Pekny playing rugby for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Photo courtesy of West Point. 

     Once she made it through Beast Barracks, Carissa went out for the women’s rugby team. She had never played rugby before, but was selected for the West Point team in her freshman year and currently plays inside center. Carissa was named to the USA Rugby Academic Honor Roll in 2015 for being a consistent starter on the team and maintaining a 3.9 or greater cumulative grade point average. The team travels around the country for both a spring and a fall season. She expressed some ambivalence about ending her rugby career at West Point by saying,

     “It is rough on the body. I think I’m gonna miss it a lot because my teammates are my best friends here,” she said.

Carissa Pekny pulls a friend on a sled at Morton Community Center in 2000.

     When asked what she remembers about her five years at the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette, she recalled her kindergarten year, when the school was located in the Morton Community Center near Purdue’s campus.

     “I remember Kindergarten with (teacher) Ginny Meyer pretty well. We used to do this Thanksgiving feast and all the parents used to come and have a feast with us. That was pretty cool,” she said.

     Carissa said Meyer had another lasting impact on her life by always making time to listen to her read and making sure she understood what she was reading.

     “I always really loved to read. Having teachers that cultivated that skill and made sure that I understood the words I was reading has benefited the rest of my academic career,” she said.

     In 2000, she attended the Montessori Elementary I class with teachers Linda Bolam and Jeff All.

     “I remember singing with Jeff and his guitar in the circle all the time,” she said. “That was a lot of fun.”

     She also appreciated being able to choose her activities from around the room.

     “In Elementary there were certain things we had to learn, there were milestones we had to reach,” she explained. “But we had a lot of free activity time and we could just do whatever we wanted. Then the teachers would come around and make sure, first off, that we were being productive,” she laughed. “If we needed help with anything they would help us.”

Carissa Pekny, in blue, looks on as Jeff All and a friend play for the MSGL Kindergarten class in 2000.

     One specific subject she remembers learning about at MSGL is the history of the U. S. Presidents.

     “This is gonna sound totally crazy, but the reason I like to study the Presidents is because (the Elementary class) had this placemat and that’s how I memorized the Presidents,” she said. “I remember learning a little bit of Spanish, too. I don’t remember it now, but I remember trying to learn it. I think it was with Ana (Orizondo).”

     Carissa’s parents were involved in the MSGL school board and helped with the transition from the Morton Center to the current campus on Soldiers Home Road. Her siblings were also MSGL alumni. Her brother, Andrew, now works for an accounting firm in Indianapolis and her sister, Chelsea, works as a pharmacist in Kenya. Carissa is open to where her life after West Point and medical school might take her.

     “The great thing about the Army is, if you want to go somewhere you can pretty much go anywhere,” she said. “I’m just really excited to go out there and see what’s out there and serve our country wherever I’m needed.”

     This is the first post in the series "I Am MSGL" featuring alumni of the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette. If you or someone you know would like to be featured in this series, please email me at

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