Kellie Nalbandian ’24 MSN on Playing ‘Survivor’

Kellie Nalbandian ’24 MSN
September 26, 2023

Yale School of Nursing (YSN) family nurse practitioner student Kellie Nalbandian ’24 MSN is one of 18 competitors on the new season of “Survivor,” which premieres Wednesday, September 27 (8:00-9:30 PM, ET/PT) on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.

Season 45 takes place in the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji, more than 12,000 miles from where Nalbandian grew up in Weston, Connecticut. She became an EMT at age 18 and worked as a nurse during the Covid-19 global pandemic in New York City, where she currently works as a critical care nurse.

YSN caught up with Nalbandian a few days before the first episode airs. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity.

What makes a nurse a great “Survivor” contestant?  

I’ve worked in the ER, I’m working in critical care. And any nurse brings to the table the fact that you have to really be using your brain to make smart clinical decisions and think strategically, while also connecting with people. You’re seeing families when they’re really stressed, and at a difficult time of their life, and that’s similar to “Survivor.”

Being a nurse helps you keep a cool head, so you can be that support person to people who are looking for someone to comfort them. I want to make other players feel comfortable so they will share information with me and use their perceptions of nursing to my advantage.

Seasons of “Survivor” were your go-to binge during the Covid-19 pandemic. What got you so excited about watching Survivor that you knew you wanted to participate?

I love the show for a lot of reasons, including its spirit of adventure and the competition and the games. But it also has a great focus on telling people’s stories, and they do such a good job of assembling a diverse cast of people from all over the US and Canada and then plop them into this crazy scenario.

I’m a really competitive person and I thought, “I can do this! It looks like so much fun!” I watched a lot of strong amazing women play the game, including the iconic “Survivor” player Cirie Fields. She lived in Connecticut for a while and she’s also a nurse. Watching her was an inspiration. I knew nurses would be great and there haven’t been that many on the show. I thought if Cirie can do it, I can do it.

You submitted your video in January 2022 after an intense period in the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York. What made you hit the send button on your audition?

I was early for my shift and sitting in my car in the parking lot outside of work and made the video in my car. I had been a nurse for about a year, and I talked about why a nurse would be good at “Survivor” and sent it in quickly.

I was feeling inspired by going through a really difficult time. I realized I’m capable of a lot more than I thought I was, and seeing how short life can be inspired me. Nothing is guaranteed. I thought, “Why should I let anything hold me back? The worst that could happen is that they say no.”

I applied very late for the season that was in production and had just started at YSN, but they brought me to Fiji for season 43 as an alternate. Then I got fast-tracked through—after so many interviews!—for season 45.

How did you prepare for the show?

I had a long time to think about it, so I did lots of physical prep and lots of swimming at the YMCA. I worked out at the gym on West Campus all the time around classes! And “Survivor” is really big on puzzles, so I ordered some puzzle replicas online, did the Wordle every day, and did puzzle slider apps.

I read a lot of books on strategy, including “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene. It was pretty intense. You have to be cutthroat to do well on “Survivor” and I’m going to try really hard—there’s $1 million on the line!

What was it like to meet longtime host Jeff Probst IRL for the first time?

The first time I ever met him was during casting in a one-on-one Zoom. On the show he’s yelling “Dig deep! It’s “Survivor!” and then you’re on a Zoom and he’s just a normal dude. I’ve seen him so many times; he’s great and so easy to talk to.

What’s your favorite class at YSN so far, and who teaches it?

My assessment class with Nicole Colline, DNP, FNP-C, MSN, BSN, the specialty director for my program. I have to shout her out. She has literally made this possible for me and been so supportive. She’s so smart and has such good experience and I love the hands-on aspect, like practicing suturing and taking out fishhooks.

What are your season premiere watch party plans?

I’m going to have a big watch party with all my friends and family, I’m very excited! We’ll be wearing Belo blue, for my tribe. I’m nervous and excited. I think it’s going to be an awesome season!