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On Her [Squid] Game

Alumnae News

How Smith College prepared Ashley Tolbert ’14 for one of reality television’s most challenging—and popular—competitions

One of 455 “players” on the Netflix series “Squid Game: The Challenge,” Ashley Tolbert ’14 came impressively close to snagging the $4.56 million prize.


Published December 15, 2023


When you meet Ashley Tolbert ’14, it makes perfect sense why she was one of the standouts on Neftlix’s Squid Game: The Challenge. She’s confident, hilarious, and intelligent. She’s also fearless, as evidenced by her decision to fly to London on a whim earlier this year to participate in the grueling, mysterious reality competition series inspired by Squid Game. One of 456 “players” on the series, the finale of which aired on December 6, Tolbert came impressively close to snagging the $4.56 million prize—one of the largest cash awards in TV history.

 “I was top five. I ain’t changing anything,” Tolbert says, reflecting on her elimination from The Challenge. “I beat out hundreds of players. I played the game right. Not many people can say that.”

Known simply as “player 278” on the popular series, Tolbert was largely labeled as a villain in light of her actions during the show’s Glass Bridge challenge. While it was never her intention to be the baddie of the show, it’s a title she’s come to appreciate.

“I was chillin’, hanging out—that’s how I made it through the game. If I was such a villain, I wouldn’t have made it to the end of the game,” she says. “But people made me a villain, and it is what it is. I’ll take it. That’s cool. I’m a Smithie, and I’m strong as hell.”

Tolbert says she applied to the show out of boredom and curiosity. She came across mentions of the casting on social media, then applied and underwent a multistep screening process that included video interviews and psychological evaluations. “They needed to make sure you were strong mentally, because it was intense,” Tolbert says. “We all had seen the first series, so we knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.”

Her strategy evolved while she was on the show, but she says her goal became about surviving—not achieving fame, and definitely not through nefarious means. “People love me. They see my personality and gravitate to me. I made some friends on the show who are going to be here forever,” Tolbert says, adding, “I never even had any expectation to win, seriously. I went in with no expectations whatsoever.”

Tolbert, middle, waits for her turn to participate in the Glass Bridge game of “Squid Game: The Challenge.”

After making it through the show’s first game—called Red Light, Green Light—something clicked in her; she realized she could win and decided to give it her all. “After making it past that, I was like: We are about to play this game for real. I can do this.”

It’s been nearly a decade since Tolbert graduated from Smith, but she credits her time on campus with preparing her for the many challenges she faced on the show. While a student, Tolbert landed impressive real-world opportunities, such as internships at first lady Michelle Obama’s office at the White House and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s office in Worcester, Massachusetts. 

Tolbert says Smith challenged her in unexpected ways: “It was culture shock: the town and campus full of white people. Yes, I attended school with white people all of my life, but have I lived with them every day? Wined, dined, and went to school with them? Slept with them? No. At first it was lonely, but stuff like that is character-building. Smith made me extremely uncomfortable, but in order to grow, you have to be uncomfortable and you have to get out of your comfort zone. And that’s what it did to me.”  

During an interview on The Challenge, Tolbert took a moment to pay respects to her alma mater. “Being a Smithie definitely helped shape me, and the women I met on campus, they’ve made me stronger,” she said during Episode 5. “You know, I think all that prepared me for this competition. The people were love, the professors were love, and I was like: This is where I belong.”

With her 10-year Reunion just around the corner in May, Tolbert is excited about the possibility of catching up with old friends. In the meantime, she’s busy working as a legal investigator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, specializing in civil rights investigations and health information protection. And thanks to the exposure she’s received from the show, the possibilities for her next chapter in life are endless.

“I want to do everything. I want to do more,” she says. “I was on Squid Game and that’s something I can check off my bucket list. I think next I want to go to piloting school. I want to get my pilot’s license. And why not? I’m 31. I got forever to go.”

To learn more about other notable alums, check out the Notes From Paradise newsletter and peruse the archive of Smith Alumnae Quarterly articles.