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Over 75 South Asian Americans Among 254 Students Competing in 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Over 75 South Asian Americans Among 254 Students Competing in 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee

  • For over a decade, kids from the diaspora have been ruling the national spelling bee circuit and claiming the championship trophy.

It’s Bee time once again, and naturally, the focus is on Indian American students. This year, over 75 students are of South Asian origin. They are among 234 spellers. are headed to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, this month-end, for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The national rounds of the competition will be held from May 31 to June 2.

For over a decade, Indian American kids have been ruling the national spelling bee circuit and claiming the championship trophy. Scripps National Spelling Bee data shows that 27 of the last 35 winners were of Indian origin. 

However, Indian Americans’ 13-year dominance in the national bee ended last year, when Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana spelled her way to win the 2021 competition, becoming the bee’s first African American champion in its 98-year-old history. Indian American bee hopeful Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from Frisco, Texas, came in second, while Bhavana Madini, a 13-year-old from Plainview, New York, came in third.

The Bee was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time since World War II.

In 2019, eight children — seven of them Indian Americans — were declared co-winners at the coveted bee. Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of California; Saketh Sundar, 13, of Maryland; Shruthika Padhy, 13, of New Jersey; Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Texas; Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Texas; Christopher Serrao, 13, of New Jersey, Rohan Raja, 13, of Texas; and Erin Howard, 14, of Alabama — closed the bee with 47 correct spellings in a row in a final that went into 20 rounds. That was the first time that more than two co-champions were named in the national bee.

In 2014, Sriram J. Hathwar of New York, and Ansun Sujoe of Texas were named co-winners for the first time in Scripps history. Two years later, Sriram’s younger brother Jairam was declared co-champion with Nihar Saireddy Janga of Texas.

A year later, Vanya Shivshankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were co-winners. Vanya is the younger sister of Kavya Shivshankar, who won the Scripps National Bee in 2009.

This year’s Bee includes 45 participants who have previously competed in the event. Twenty-three of the spellers have relatives who are former national competitors; while four were finalists in 2021, including three who tied for fourth place.

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One of the competitors this year is 12-year-old Akash Vukoti of San Angelo, Texas, who was featured in Sam Rega’s Netflix documentary. “Spelling the Dream,” which followed the pre-teen and three others as they prepared for the 2017 annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Vukoti has previously competed in 2016 (tied for 172nd place), 2018 (tied for 323rd place), 2019 (tied for 51st place) and 2021 (tied for 76th place).

Rega’s 90-minute documentary not only highlights these and other accomplishments, it tries to look into the reasons behind the phenomenon. Closely following the four families, he examines various factors which could contribute to the expertise and success Indian American kids have been displaying at the national spelling bees. Is it genetics, is it the “tiger parent” syndrome, or a combination of intelligence, dedication and hard work? 

Viewers are first introduced to Vukoti, then 7, who has been spelling since he was two. He was inducted into the American Mensa when he was three. He made his first appearance at the National Spelling Bee when he was 6-years-old. Since his first bee appearance, Vukoti has gained a lot of fame, and has appeared in “Little Big Shots” hosted by Steve Harvey as well as on “Dancing With the Stars: Juniors.” 

Rega told The New York Times in a 2018 interview that ESPN’s decision to broadcast the Bee since 1994 and Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 documentary “Spellbound,” “raised the profile of spelling in the South Asian community and made more kids want to participate.” Blitz’s documentary followed eight competitors in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, including that year’s champion Nupur Lala.

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