UB Sophomore Has Time of His Life as Contestant on College Week Edition of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire"

How much did he win? He can't say, so tune in on Feb. 12 to find out

By Donna Budniewski

Release Date: February 6, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- At just 19 years old, one UB student's 15 minutes of fame came early in life, but he says he hopes it won't be his last.

In early January, Paul Hebert, a sophomore double-major in English and philosophy, left the frigid temperatures of his hometown of Albany and flew to balmy Florida to be a contestant on the College Week edition of ABC's popular game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Although he can't tell you how much he won or give details about specific questions he was asked on the show -- he is bound by the rules of the game -- Hebert did say he won't have to worry about how much money he'll make this summer to cover tuition bills, although he does plan to work, possibly teaching English in China.(Editor's Note on 2/13/2004: Paul Hebert won $32,000 during his Feb. 12 appearance on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.")

The College Week shows will air Feb. 9-13; Hebert will appear on the Feb. 12 episode.

Just being chosen as a contestant for College Week was almost as good as winning the lottery. Hebert, along with the other contestants, received an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney/MGM Studios where the show was filmed in a "Millionaire" studio designed to give theme-park goers a true game-show experience. The contestants were given priority passes for all rides and V.I.P. seating for the grand finale fireworks display for which the park is famous. Throughout their Disney experience, they were filmed for the promos that will air during College Week.

"We had a blast, it was awesome. It was just one of the most fun days I've ever had," Hebert says about his day at the theme park with the other college students. "The other contestants were some of the most fun people I've ever met. We're still keeping in touch -- we're writing all the time and may get together again."

After two days spent having the time of his life, Hebert stepped into the hot seat wearing his UB sweatshirt before a very loud and very live audience of 650 people -- about six times the number of people in the New York City studio's audience. His parents, a younger sister and a friend were in the audience and also stayed in the Disney hotel for free.

Hebert noted that almost all of the contestants had been given the "Millionaire" board game for practice at home before appearing on the show. "My younger sister is very proud that I lost the $200 question twice to her -- it's the sort of thing that gives you confidence," he says.

Hebert's appearance on the show was a bit of a fluke. This past summer, he and some friends planned to visit Boston, but one friend backed out at the last minute. That friend had plans to try out for the "Millionaire" show in New York City, so, Hebert says, "like good friends often do, we showed up outside the studio to make fun of him and lend support." Hebert and his friends also ended up trying out for the show, but he was the only one who made it. It caused some temporary bitterness, Hebert jokes, but notes that they're all still friends.

After completing a fill-in-the-blank exam and a brief interview, Hebert was notified that he was part of the contestant pool. One month before the beginning of the spring semester, he got a call from a producer inviting him to be on the college version of the show.

Hebert's biggest fear was making it past the first question -- his friends warned him that if he missed it he wouldn't be allowed to come home. His primary strategy, though, hinged on avoiding a personality trait his friends also warned might get him into trouble. "I get really sure of my answers sometimes when I have no reason to be. People were positive I'd make that mistake," he says. "All the strategies change when you're sitting in that chair. Half the things you thought you knew before you went on the show, you find out you don't," he says, but he also notes he felt pretty confident going into it.

Contestants on the show can choose five persons to serve as lifelines -- a lifeline is an opportunity to get outside help if one doesn't know the answer to a question. Hebert chose as one of his lifelines Michael Basinski, senior assistant librarian in the Poetry/Rare Books Room, a poet and Hebert's boss. Hebert works as a student assistant in the Poetry/Rare Books Room.

"The whole library agreed that he'd be the person to have as a lifeline for general knowledge and also literary stuff. He knows practically everything about every writer imaginable," says Hebert. "A lot of people wouldn't be lifelines for me because they were too nervous they'd give the wrong answer."

Basinski got the call for a question Hebert thought he knew the answer to, but wasn't quite sure. And even with Basinski's help, Hebert ended up guessing after all. A "significant amount of money" was at stake, and he had only one lifeline left. Hebert's penchant for risk-taking and certainty paid off. He not only answered that question correctly, but made it past a big hurdle in the show -- if he'd guessed wrong, he would have left with just enough money for a round-trip flight to Europe or only part of what he owed for tuition for a semester at UB.

At one point the show's host, Meredith Vieira, asked Hebert if the money seemed real to him. "I had to be completely honest and say no, it doesn't feel like real money at all. What I actually said was something like 'until I get the check and have it put into dollar bills and then swim around in it, only then will I know it's real.'"

Even with a camera in his face, a huge audience and his father "basically dying" behind him (according to his sister), Hebert says he was having an amazing time on camera. "It was just like I hoped it would be and I got used to it. You do relax after the first question."

With the winnings Hebert, a cartoonist for the Spectrum and member of the UB Choir, says he'll be able to study abroad in Ghana next year and hopefully do some traveling. "I'm using the money to free me up to do the things I've always really wanted to do."

His plans for the future? "I'd like to marry rich and write from a villa on the Italian Riviera," Hebert jokes.

On a more serious note, he says he'd "love to write a column where I can say whatever I want and ideally people would actually care."

This may be Hebert's banner year -- his next 15 minutes of fame will come in April when the UB Choir travels to Carnegie Hall to sing Verdi's "Requiem."