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Indian-American Spells to Win

  • Pia Salmre

Snigdha Nandipati celebrates her spelling bee victory with her grandparents, Mallikarjunarao and Rajeswari Chalavadi
Perhaps 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati, a second generation American, was destined to win this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. After all, she explains, her name in Sanskrit means smooth like the honey produced by bees.

The eighth-grade student from San Diego, California also carries a lucky charm with a bee on it. ” I keep it in my pocket for all the spelling bees I’ve gone to and it has worked very well,” she explains.

But winning the highly competitive spelling contest against more than 250 of the best spellers in the world took more than luck. It took a lot of hard work and preparation to win the contest in late May.

Snigdha’s father and spelling coach, Krishnarao Nandipati, played big role in his daughter’s success. For him, it began with what he described as a strong belief in helping his children reach their dreams.

“You find what the kids are interested in and not what you are interested in,” said the senior Nandipati, a computer programmer.

He found two ways to help his daughter study. The first one utilized 30,000 flashcards and 6 to 10 hours of practice every day. The second involved enrolling her in a series of spelling contests run by the North South Foundation, an organization devoted to helping Indian-American youth prepare for college.

“I’ve been interested in spelling bees since fourth grade and I won my first one in fifth grade,” said Snigdha.

The experience Snigdha gained in the foundation’s nationally-run contests cannot be over-estimated. All five of the most recent winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee were of Indian heritage and participated in the North South Foundation’s regional and national contests.

The tournaments act as a training ground. Parents start their kids as young as 6 years old in workshops and online coaching to help their children excel. Contests form the basis for measuring achievement in more than 80 regional centers across the United States. And competitions are held not only in spelling, but in math, geography, science, vocabulary, writing and public speaking.

Krishnarao Nandipati said he believed that the contests create not only good spelling habits, but research skills that will serve his daughter well in high school and college.

Snigdha says she spends a lot time reading, which she credits with helping her spelling skills.

“When I read books I list the words that sound interesting and I look them up later,” she said.

“When I came across really weird words, those that didn’t follow any particular rules, I would research them on Wikipedia, learn about their background so that I would remember the word.”

In winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May, Snigdha had to defeat contestants from all 50 U.S. states, as well as youngsters from as far away as China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

For her victory, Snigdha won the $30,000 grand prize, two educational scholarships and a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. All are heady prizes for a 14-year-old.

But what impressed her even more was receiving the final print edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Mortally wounded by the Internet and Wikipedia, the 244-year-old reference work is going out of print in favor of a digital version.

“For a long time I have been relying on Wikipedia and now I get to read an actual hard copy of something,” Snigdha said.

But other than Snigdha, how many teenagers would even care?

Her maturity and drive certainly separate her from her peers, but picking her out of a group of students is tough. She giggles a lot, wears braces, gives a lot of yes and no answers, and carries a lucky charm.

In many ways, Snigdha is still an awkward kid. But don’t underestimate her. She can spell words you don’t even know exist.