As we bid farewell to our fall 2011 semester, we must highlight one of the coolest experiences anyone could ever encounter. Imagine this: The first ever Pac-12 Championship game, you standing in an empty Oregon Duck stadium, walking across the yellow paint just hours away from possibly winning $100,000. Well, for one lucky Trojan, what seems like a dream became a reality.

Michelle Tomkovicz, 21, is a junior at USC studying International Relations. Tomkovicz was selected from thousands across the country to compete for $100,000 as part of the 2011 Dr. Pepper Challenge.

This Iowa City native got the chance of a lifetime after being selected as a top five contestant to compete at the Half Time show of the Pac-12 championship game, where the Oregon Ducks took on the UCLA Bruins. Tomkovicz made a one-minute video and submitted it to the Dr. Pepper Web site talking about why she needed tuition assistance.

“I said I wanted to give back to my parents and grandparents for all their sacrificing, and all their giving to send me and my sister and my brother to college. I wanted to pay off some loans and also be able to do better internships and travel abroad,” says Tomkovicz.

After submitting the video, a month had passed and Tomkovicz thought nothing of it until Dr. Pepper called to give her the good news.

“I was actually in Minnesota [when I got the call], and I just got in the car and everyone was loud. The second he said Dr. Pepper I got excited. They said I was going to Oregon to compete and had already won $2,500. I just kept telling him I was speechless over and over. I was so excited I didn’t know what to say,” she shares.

Tomkovicz was one of five contestants who were flown out to Oregon. She brought along her father from Iowa for support, as she was all set to compete. Unfortunately before the main event, she fell short and lost what she says was “10 seconds,” before the last two contestants went on air to compete live.

“I was really bummed because the way they set it up is that they had everyone watching [everyone else compete], and I went first. It was heartbreaking watching the others go up after you and see their points go up and up and passing yours,” she says. “You had 30 footballs and 30 seconds and you had to throw them in the huge Dr. Pepper Can standing [about] five yards away … I made nine.”

On the bright side, Tomkovicz was able to get an experience most Trojans will never get.

“I was thinking the whole time, ‘USC should be here, this was our game.’ I think I was underwhelmed because the Coliseum is much better,” she says with a laugh, “but it was still amazing, especially since it was the first Pac-12 Championship Game. We had amazing seats and all these passes that let us on the field. It was nice; it made me feel important.”

Nevertheless Tomkovicz didn’t go home empty handed, she was given a $7,500 consolation prize, a free trip to Oregon, an opportunity to see her father before the holidays, plus a previous $2,500 prize. But for Tomkoviz, she gained something else.

“I learned to just go after things, [when this all first started] I thought there’s no way I’m going to win, but I submitted it anyway and it ended up being an amazing experience. The whole Dr. Pepper team was amazing and helpful,” she says. “I didn’t win the big prize, but it was still amazing; it really put things in perspective. It made me feel good that out of thousands and thousands of kids, I was chosen not only to win, but as a top five contestant. They said I was in the top .3 percent chosen.”

Tomkovicz will use the money for her pre-set goals and will be graduating from USC in spring 2013. As she heads home to Iowa City, she looks to spend the holidays with her family and might get some publicity as she is now Michelle Tomkovicz: Iowa City’s and USC’s very own local celebrity.

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