Following Elisabeth Hasselbeck's announcement that should would be leaving Fox News and Fox & Friends to focus on family, the network's morning show was left with an empty spot on its curvy couch.
This week, that spot was filled by Fox News vet Ainsley Earhardt, who came to the show from Fox & Friends First, the show that airs in the hour ahead of Fox & Friends.
"I'm so excited to wake America up everyday," Earhardt tells PEOPLE. "This is the best time of my life. It just keeps getting better and better."
And for her, getting the much-coveted morning show host gig is really bringing it full circle. Nearly 10 years ago, when she first interviewed at Fox with Fox News Chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes, she was less than optimistic about her prospects. Receiving an offer for her "dream job" back in his office was a return to that moment.
"Back then, I wasn't sure I was getting the job," she says. "Now, you're naming me one of the national morning show hosts in the country."
The South Carolina native broke into the broadcasting world close to home: she's from Columbia, where the University of South Carolina is located, and attended the university, too. After toying with the idea of a career as an orthodontist, she switched to broadcast journalism. Following graduation, she landed her first on-air job in Columbia; after five years there, she relocated to San Antonio, Texas, for a bit before heading up north in 2007, when she started at Fox, working the weekend show.
Needless to say, she's come a long way since. Earhardt started at Fox on both the early-morning and weekend shows before moving over to Fox & Friends First, where she's covered stories such as the 2015 Charleston shooting, Pope Francis's N.Y.C. visit and the Fort Hood military base massacre.
Joining her in her new role are a lot of familiar faces: Since starting at the network, many of the people she's worked with have been making their way up the ranks, too.
"We all got that promotion together," she says. "And a lot of those individuals are now working on Fox & Friends. It's a lot of fun to do this as a team."
Courtesy FOX News
Earhardt and the team have had a busy first week on the show – and one with a lot of variety. She and her co-hosts, Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy, spoke to both Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the morning of Super Tuesday. They ran in and out of Fox's Midtown Manhattan office to talk presidential primaries with a chalk drawing of the United States. And in a special moment for Earhardt, she was joined by her parents for a segment on cooking Mickey Mouse pancakes – her favorite breakfast as a child.
The hard work is paying off: On Feb. 29, the day of her debut show, ratings were up 24 percent in total viewers, and 21 percent for those ages 25 to 54, compared to the 2015 average.
In the weeks leading up to her Fox & Friends debut, Earhardt sought advice from Hasselbeck, calling her the night before her final interview with Ailes.
"She was very encouraging," she says.
Hasselbeck also suggested that Earhardt read a devotional every day on the way to work to settle her mind and help prepare for the day ahead.
Earhardt, of course, hopes to bring her own perspective to the show – and feels her past work will be key in doing so.
"I have a journalism background, and I want to be on the curvy couch and provide that to the audience, where I'm fair and balanced when I'm telling stories," she says. "But I also want to provide fun and entertainment."
Coming in at a time when the news truly never stops – election season – just makes her new job all the more thrilling.
"It's such an exciting time," she says. "I can't wait."
Exciting things are happening in Earhardt's personal life, too: She welcomed her daughter Hayden last November, and after returning from four months of maternity leave, she found out she got the job on Fox & Friends. Working at a job she loves so much, Earhardt hopes to set a positive example for her daughter.
Courtesy Ainsley Earhardt
"She's going to grow up in a home where she sees a mom who is really happy and loves her job," Earhardt says.
She wants to encourage her daughter to pursue her passions – and hopes other parents do the same.
"I would have been a fine orthodontist," Earhardt says with a smile. "But I'm better here."