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From classroom to castaway: Ex-Northwestern professor competes on new season of ‘Survivor’

Former Northwestern professor Max Dawson taught a popular class about the CBS reality series “Survivor.”

One fact Dawson didn’t share with his students: He’d begun the casting process to be on the show himself.

Dawson put on 45 pounds to bulk up for "Survivor."

Dawson put on 45 pounds to bulk up for “Survivor.”

“I had to keep this a secret, knowing at any moment I could get a call saying, ‘Pack your water shoes and swim suit, you’re going on the island,’” Dawson said.

That call finally came last June, when Dawson was invited to outwit, outplay and outlast opponents on the 30th season of “Survivor,” premiering at 7 p.m. Wednesday on WBBM-Channel 2.

“I never hesitated for a second; it was something I always harbored hope of doing,” Dawson said about the Jeff Probst-hosted series that proved to be a game-changer for TV when it launched 15 years ago.

“I love the outdoors,” said Dawson, 37. “The line of work I chose and the place I chose to do it in — a professor in the Midwest — cut me off from all the scuba diving and hiking and camping that I’d done in my 20s. I had this fantasy of being able to have that Robinson Crusoe experience.”

Dawson and 17 other castaways vying for the $1 million prize filmed the cutthroat contest last summer in Nicaragua.

In a new twist for television’s longest-running reality competition, contestants are divided into three teams this season: the brainy White Collar group, the salt-of-the-earth, hard-working Blue Collar crew and the free-spirited No Collar clan.

Chicago-trained thespian Will Sims II is on the No Collar team in this season of "Survivor."

Chicago-trained thespian Will Sims II is on the No Collar team in this season of “Survivor.”

The latter includes ex-Chicagoan Will Sims II, a founding member of Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre Company. Sims and his wife, Monifa, shot to viral video fame in 2013 after they starred in a specious “Pumpcast News” segment on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” where they rocked out to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” at a Burbank gas station.

Dawson is in the White Collar camp. The Connecticut native joined the corporate world two years ago when he left his gig at Northwestern and moved to Los Angeles. He works as a researcher and consultant, helping television networks and studios understand audience behavior and viewing habits, among other things.

During his four-year stint in Northwestern’s department of Radio, TV and Film, Dawson’s “Survivor” class quickly became a campus favorite.

Titled “The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality,” the undergraduate course used the CBS series as a window into learning about changes in the television industry. Dawson taught the class in a “Survivor”-like fashion, dividing students into teams and incorporating bits of the show — immunity idols, challenges — into the classroom.

“When it’s winter in Chicago, students can lose their motivation to get up and trudge across campus to listen to a lecture on FCC regulations,” Dawson said. “But if they know they’ll be competing against their classmates with major rewards on the line, suddenly you have something a little more motivating.”

Guest speakers in the class included past reality show contestants. I sat in on one such session in 2012, when a half-dozen former “Survivor” castaways talked candidly about their experiences. Several of them intimated that the show wasn’t always as “real” as it was made out to be. One contestant said a fire that looked like it was started with a pair of eyeglasses was really ignited with the help of a lighter. Another said a sound man slipped her a piece of candy while she was separated from her tribe on Exile Island.

Dawson insisted that his firsthand experience was the real deal. If you wanted food, fire and shelter, you either had to find it on your own or go without.

“There’s nothing more real than ‘Survivor,’” he said. “Granted, it’s a contrived scenario. I would never choose to hang out with 17 strangers — let alone 17 reality TV contestant lunatics — on a beach in Nicaragua. But there’s no one there making it any easier on you. You’re left to your own devices.”

Dawson (pictured back row, far left) and his White Collar teammates.

Dawson (pictured back row, far left) and his White Collar teammates.

As a “Survivor” expert headed into the competition, Dawson was well-versed in what he had to do to get in the best possible shape — physically and mentally — for the show. He hit the gym, packed 45 pounds onto his once-spindly 6-foot-3-inch frame, did every puzzle he could get his hands on and memorized poetry to stave off the long stretches of tedium that never make it to the small screen.

“It’s still so hard to prepare yourself for the lack of privacy and the pressure cooker you’re put into,” he said.

So what did this former teacher learn from being on “Survivor?”

“It taught me a tremendous amount about what it takes to put on the greatest reality TV show in history,” he said. “And it taught me a lot about what my strengths and weaknesses are.

“Some people come out of it and they think, ‘I’m going to be famous now. I should quit my job and move to L.A.,'” he added. “Other people think, ‘I have more work to do with my therapist.’ I fell into the latter category. It’s been incredibly revelatory to me to have this self-understanding, to be able to build on the lessons I learned on the island back in everyday life.”