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Spelling Bees Popular in Indian-American Community

Anurag Kashyap, 13, of Poway, Calif. is interviewed after winning the 78th annual National Spelling Bee in Washington
Last week in Washington, Anurag Kashyap, 13, an Indian-American, out-spelled 272 other young people from around the United States to win the Scripps national spelling bee. In fact, the top four finalists were of Indian descent.

There were 30 children of Indian heritage in the finals of this year's national spelling bee. Many of them came to the United States as babies or were born here. The winner, Anurag Kashyap, came with his parents when he was less than two years old.

Doctor Ratnam Chitturi of the North-South Foundation, which is based near Chicago, Illinois, says several factors contribute to the academic success of children from the Indian culture.

"First it's the community, the parents, they are well educated, so they know the value of education, what it does, how it is important in the modern society in the 21st century,” said Dr. Chitturi. “Then they focus on their children's education to make them successful. They spend time with them. They support them. It's a family thing. They do things together."

The North-South Foundation began in 1989 to help pay for the education of financially disadvantaged children in India. It now has 60 chapters in the United States and also provides scholarships for needy Indian-American children.

In 1985, Balu Natarajan became the first Indian-American to win the Scripps spelling bee. Since 1999, four more Indian-Americans have won the competition. Several of them have also participated in spelling bees sponsored by the North-South Foundation, including 11-year-old Samir Patel, who placed second at the Scripps bee this year.

Doctor Chitturi says the bees started as a way to help the children learn better English, which they do not always learn from their immigrant parents.

"English is not our native language, and as a result our children don't get the complete benefit," Dr. Chitturi added.

Paige Kimble, the director of the Scripps spelling bee, says the organization does not keep statistics on the contestants' ethnicities. But she says spelling champions usually come from homes where reading is emphasized and educational achievement is highly valued.

"So it may very well be that Indians, in particular, can take pride in the type of home environments they are providing for their children, in encouraging educational achievement," said Ms. Kimble

Doctor Chitturi also points out that the Indian culture is very achievement-oriented, with each generation striving to do better than the last.

"Even if you ask an engineer, a parent, he will say I want my children to be more successful than I. And if you ask a doctor, even the doctor will say I want my children to be more successful than I," noted Dr. Chitturi.

For many, spelling bees are not just about the words, but about providing young people with goals and teaching them the discipline necessary to achieve them. With the continued success of Indian-American students at spelling bees on the national level, Doctor Chitturi says they are likely to remain popular in the community for some time to come.