IndianAmericans Emerge as Winners at Scripps National Spelling Bee

History was made last week in the world of competitive spelling, as two co-champions were named in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Thirteen-year-old Vanya Shivashankar and fourteen-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam shared a trophy on the stage in National Harbor, Maryland, where the competition is held every year. The two beat out 283 other contestants, ranging in age from nine to fourteen, over three days of competition. They will also receive a cash prize of nearly $40,000 from various sponsors. Following last year’s bee, in which two winners were also named, their joint victory at the 2015 bee marks the first time in the competition’s ninety-year history that there have ever co-champions two years in a row. Shivishankar’s winning word was scherenensitte, which means the art of cutting paper into decorative designs, while Venkatachalam’s was nunatak, meaning a mountain surrounded by glacial ice. [See The Scripps National Spelling Bee has Co-Champions, Again, by Katy Steinmetz, Time, 28.May.2015.]

Shivashankar and Venkatachalam are both IndianAmericans, and their victory last week solidifies the dominance of young Americans of Indian decent in the field of competitive spelling. Since 1999, fifteen of the nineteen winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee have been IndianAmericans, including this year’s co-champions. Their triumph has sparked a national conversation as to why youth whose families hail from India tend to outperform their peers in spelling contests. In a recent interview with CNN, Shalini Shankar, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University, explained that their success is rooted in a culture that values education and prosperity, while fostering a healthy love of competition. Indian immigrants, she says, “… invest a lot of time with their kids. They prioritize education and have the economic means to have a parent stay at home. It’s much more a socio-economic factor than a gene.” [See Why IndianAmericans Win Spelling Bees – Practice, by Moni Basu, CNN, 3.Jun.2015.]

And while the Scripps National Spelling Bee may be the most well-known academic tournament in the United States, there exists an entire culture of competitive spelling, geography, math and science where IndianAmericans hone their skills and boost their confidence. The nonprofit North South Foundation, which sponsors various academic competitions in thirty-five states featuring over 18,000 participants, was initially founded by retired engineer Ratnam Chitturi in India during the 1990’s as a way to sponsor education for underprivileged children. Eventually, friends urged him to expand his foundation in order to help Indian children living in the U.S., and he now organizes competitions throughout the country. Most of the Scripps National Spelling Bee champions who have ties to India, including this year’s winners, began their competitive careers by participating in North South Foundation tournaments. “It’s just like sports,” Chitturi explained to CNN. “Practice makes them perfect.” In fact, Chittrui draws a comparison between the winners in his competitions and stars in the athletic world, and feels that they are role models who inspire young IndianAmericans to strive for academic success. “They see the winners and think – they did it, I can do it too.”

The co-champions of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee have much of which to be proud. They endured days of nail-biting competition to emerge as winners, collecting a trophy and cash prize in front of a packed auditorium. But more importantly, they have inspired young IndianAmericans to invest in their educations, set goals, and engage in competition with a sense of confidence. They are true symbols of the American dream for the next generation of American immigrants.


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