This post was supposed to be an extension of the 3peat post but the scope of this post goes way beyond just celebrating this year’s Spelling Bee champion. Couple of years back, we ran a post on Why are South Asian kids so successful in spelling bees? and came away with, among other reasons, family structure and support as the primary reason.
Slate has an interesting theory on the success of Indian kids in the Spelling Bees: a pipeline of talented spellers created by nationwide organizations like the North South Foundation.
The NSF circuit consists of 75 chapters run by close to 1,000 volunteers. The competitions, which began in 1993, function as a nerd Olympiad for Indian-Americans—there are separate divisions for math, science, vocab, geography, essay writing, and even public speaking—and a way to raise money for college scholarships for underprivileged students in India. There is little financial reward for winners (just a few thousand dollars in college scholarships) compared with the $40,000 winning purse handed out each year by Scripps.
The seeds for this current wave of domination by Indian kids was sown by Nupur Lala the 1999 winner who was featured in a documentary Spellbound. The Indian domination over the past decade and half can be chronicled in two parts: before and after Spellbound.
Just as Kavya Shivashankar has inspired the next wave of Indian spellers, Kavya found her bee mojo during the post-Spellbound boom. Before Spellbound, the 2002 documentary that featured Indian-American Nupur Lala’s run to the 1999 Scripps title, many first-generation South Asian parents saw NSF as a way for their children to assimilate—the best way to understand a culture, after all, is to learn its language. They used the North South Foundation events as a sort of SAT prep, teaching their children to use phonetics, etymology, and word roots to suss out answers.
After Spellbound, that changed a bit. After Balu Natarajan (winning word: milieu) became the first Indian-American to win Scripps back in 1985, he went on to a career in sports medicine. When Lala did it in 1999 with logorrhea, she became a movie star. (OK, a movie star and a neuroscientist.) Kavya has called Lala an inspiration—the license plate of Mirle’s teal minivan reads “SPL BND.” She’s far from alone. In 2002, NSF had less than 20 chapters pulling in about 500 mostly middle-school-age spellers. Then pop culture galvanized an expansion to elementary schoolers; today, six times as many students compete in North South Foundation spelling events.
Kavya Shivashankar, the 2009 winner is a former NSF champion and legend of sorts in the NSF circuit.
Here’s another caveat to participating in the Spelling Bee:
You have to be more than a great speller to qualify for the National Bee—you also have to live in a school district with a sponsoring newspaper or community organization. These days, parents seem to be paying a lot more attention to such logistics. When Mirle Shivashankar realized in 2005 that there was just one Scripps sponsor in all of Kansas, he beat the bushes to ensure that more kids from the state—his daughter, for one—would have the chance to go to nationals. Kavya subsequently gained all of her berths to the nationals by virtue of a brand-new sponsor, the Olathe News.
The force seems to be strong with the Indian community in the US when it comes to education related events like the Spelling Bee thanks to an ever-growing pipeline of contestants produced by events like the NSF Bee. American football and basketball have a large contingent of players fed by pipelines in inner-city schools. The presence of such pipelines fosters competition and increases not only the quantity but also quality of the contestants. The National Spelling Bee appears to be fed by pipelines in places like Hindus temples, Indian cultural centers and drab school auditoriums.
The future for Indian-American contestants in the Spelling Bee is not only bright but also significantly younger. In fact, the future is all of 8 years old. [KC]
North South Foundation winners don’t have to worry about Kavya Shivashankar anymore—she has retired. At the Shawnee NSF contest this April, Swetha Jasti placed first, with a perfect score that qualified her for NSF nationals later this summer. But unfortunately for Jasti, she won’t make it to Scripps this year. When the National Spelling Bee starts up this week, their region will be represented by a surprise challenger: Kavya’s 8-year-old sister, Vanya, who drubbed Jasti in the National Spelling Bee’s Olathe qualifier.
For youngsters like Vanya, this is Scripps’ best selling point: Whereas the North South Foundation still divides contestants into junior and senior levels, the National Spelling Bee has no minimum age requirement. Vanya, who has taken to referring to herself and her sister as the Eli and Peyton Manning of spelling, will be the youngest competitor in Washington, D.C., this year. When ESPN recently showed up in Kansas to film a miniprofile for the contest, she grinned unabashedly. “Now it’s my turn,” she proclaimed to the room full of cameras. As with most things in the life of an NSF standout, the moment seemed well-rehearsed.
Wow! No pressure there, Vanya! By the way, Vanya did not make it to the semifinals this year but age is on her side and she appears upbeat about her chances in future years.