I called Snigdha Nandipati, winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2012, thinking I already knew where my story was headed. The theme of my questions, similar to many media outlets, revolved around the idea of why she thought so many Indian-American students excelled at this particular competition. Is it that Indian-American students have some absurd “spelling gene?” Or did Indian parents simply push their children harder than everyone else?

I was in awe of this well-spoken, insightful teenager, now a junior in high school. I wasn’t interviewing her so much as she was giving me invaluable advice.

I have my own theory on this phenomenon. When immigrant populations see how someone like them excels in America, those populations become very good at imitating those paths. Similar to the prevalence of the Vietnamese owning nail salons, Cambodians owning donut shops, and Koreans owning dry-cleaning businesses; Indian-American students see how someone such as themselves have found success in spelling bees. That would explain why despite Indian-Americans making up less than 1 percent of the population in America, they made up a fifth of this year’s contestant pool. More contestants means more of chance that the winner will be Indian-American. There, simple. Question answered. I thought I had my angle and just needed to collect a couple of quotes.

It’s funny how reporters can often be led by their biases during the interview process. Yes, the answers come from the subject, but there are certainly questions a reporter can ask that push the subject into saying what one wants them to say. This was perhaps unconscious in my plan. But when I finally talked to Nandipati, that went out the door because I didn’t feel like the authority in our conversation. In all honesty, I was in awe of this well-spoken, insightful teenager, now a junior in high school. I wasn’t interviewing her so much as she was giving me invaluable advice.

So, here, I humbly present the life lessons I learned from a former national spelling bee champ:

PERSEVERE WHEN YOU’VE MADE A COMMITMENT

When Nandipati made up her mind about going to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she dedicated all of her free time to studying. This meant that after she came home from school and finished her homework, she learned word roots, etymologies, origins and languages. She estimates that she spent six hours on weekdays and 10 hours on weekends navigating a world of unfamiliar and obscure words.

“It was really intense for awhile,” Nandipati said. “But in those moments, you just have to push yourself because what you really want in this experience was there waiting for you in the end.”

It’s one thing when I push through a three-mile run or try to finish a book that has been sitting on my nightstand for months. It’s quite another to wake up for two months and fully commit to a goal every single day.

VISUALIZE WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND BE MINDFUL WHEN YOU SPEAK

The worst thing that could have happened to Nandipati at the National Scripps Spelling Bee two years ago was to lose on a word she knew.

“You could get eliminated for mixing up the letters in your mouth. After working so hard, it could all end on something as small as that.”

Some spellers have signature moves when they’re spelling. Some enunciate each letter of the word. Some spell slowly and loudly. Nandipati never wanted to rush through a word, so her signature move was to write it out on her hand first.

“I’m such an aesthetic learner,” Nandipati said. “It helped me visual the words.”

“At first, I thought spelling was just about memorizing. That can be very boring,” Nandipati said. “Spelling is not about that. It’s about rules and roots. You have to learn the rules of language, the history and the story of the word.”

THROW YOURSELF INTO WHAT INTERESTS YOU

“At first, I thought spelling was just about memorizing. That can be very boring,” Nandipati said. “Spelling is not about that. It’s about rules and roots. You have to learn the rules of language, the history and the story of the word.”

She finds the fascinating in the mundane. Nandipati can look at words and see not just black ink on white paper, but what the word represents and how that word has evolved and morphed over time. She makes spelling interesting.

PASSIONS DON’T DEFINE YOU; YOU DEFINE YOU

So, what does Nandipati want to be when she grows up? Maybe a lexicographer or a linguist? How could she not with all the talent she has in understanding words and language? Nope. She’s interested in neuroscience or cognitive science. Being a spelling bee champ doesn’t define her.

“Passions don’t have to lead to a career at all. It doesn’t determine your entire life,” Nandipati said. “As you get older, your passions change and not because one’s better and one’s not. Passions change and when you find something you’re passionate about, you should embrace it because there’s no telling what that could lead to.”

Nandipati found one of her passions early in life, conquered it and moved on to something else.

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Photo by AP
DON’T LET THE PRESSURE GET TO YOU

You’re competing against 284 spellers. There are three preliminary rounds, a semifinal test and then the semifinals before you reach the championship finals. Then there are all those eyes on you. A bright spotlight. The competition is broadcast live on ESPN2. It’s enough to make anybody break. And for Nandipati, there was an additional pressure in having her grandparents fly in from India just to see her compete. But Nandipati never let the tension get to her. Instead, she just focused on the announcer and the word, ignored the people and the cameras, and relished in the fact that her grandparents were there for her.

“They came all the way across the world. It was so nice to have my grandparents there,” Nandipati said. “They always know what to say. They give great advice.”

I guess that just runs in the family.

Cover photo: AP Jacquelyn Martin.


thumb_Maggie-Thach
MAGGIE THACH | @magsthach

Sports. Writing. I’ve never been a natural at either, but I love them both. I’m happy to be joining these two loves at Dat Winning. I received my MFA in creative nonfiction in 2013 and I play in an over-30 women’s basketball league. We are currently 9-3.

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