When Melissa Hanna won the $250,000 grand prize on ABC's "The Scholar" Monday, she felt shocked but ecstatic.
"Now I can go to the college of my dreams" the Tarzana teen said, breathlessly, as relatives hugged her and confetti caught in her hair.
The Jewish, biracial Hanna, who at age 18 already has produced charity rock concerts, was one of 10 brainy and financially needy high school seniors competing for cash on "The Scholar." It was one of two dozen reality TV shows to air this summer, but without the requisite cockroach eating. Sure, there was dramatic tension in the Victorian house near USC, where the teens lived for two weeks, but the emphasis was on pop quizzes, team challenges and interviews with college admissions officers.
The education-oriented Broad Foundation funded the top prize in part because "'The Scholar' shows how education can change families' and people's lives for the better," Eli Broad said.
Hanna was reluctant to apply, fearing she'd be typecast as "the rich, spoiled Valley girl" because she was attending a North Hollywood private high school, Campbell Hall, albeit on full scholarship.
"The story of my life," Hanna said, "has been not fitting in."
Because her father is black and her mother is Jewish, she was discouraged from attending an elite private elementary school and a Jewish religious school, where a rabbi told her she simply wouldn't do well. Even so, Hanna pushed for acceptance and became the top student in both places.
When severe scoliosis ended her promising gymnastics career, she focused on philanthropy, namely, organizing the charity rock concerts and acting as a hospital spokesperson
Despite these accomplishments, the shy Hannah cried when prodded by admissions officers in the pilot episode.
"I definitely came to the competition with self-doubt," she said.
She plans to study ethnic and Jewish studies at Pomona College and ultimately to work for a nonprofit such as The Jewish Federation.
"The scholarship will allow me to attend the school where I'll fit in the most and to achieve my ambition of improving others' lives," she said.