Art and Culture

National Spelling Bee reflects the economic success and cultural impact of immigrants from India

This year's bee is scheduled to begin Tuesday at a convention center outside Washington

Harini Logan, 14, from San Antonio, Texas, gets a kiss from her mom Rampriya Logan on stage as she celebrates winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 2, 2022, in Oxon Hill, Md.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

When Balu Natarajan became the first Indian American champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985, a headline on an Associated Press article read, “Immigrants’ son wins National Spelling Bee,” with the first paragraph noting the champion “speaks his parents’ native Indian language at home.”

Those details would hardly be newsworthy today after a quarter-century of Indian American spelling champs, most of them the offspring of parents who arrived in the United States on student or work visas.

This year's bee is scheduled to begin Tuesday at a convention center outside Washington and, as usual, many of the expected contenders are Indian American, including Shradha Rachamreddy, Aryan Khedkar, Bruhat Soma and Ishika Varipilli.

Nearly 70% of Indian-born U.S. residents arrived after 2000, according to census data, and that dovetails with the surge in Indian American spelling bee champions. There were two Indian American Scripps winners before 1999. Of the 34 since, 28 have been Indian American, including three straight years of Indian American co-champions and one year (2019) when eight champions were declared, seven of Indian ancestry.

The experiences of first-generation Indian Americans and their spelling bee champion children illustrate the economic success and cultural impact of the nation's second-largest immigrant group.

As of 2022, there were 3.1 million Indian-born people living in the U.S., and Indian American households had a median income of $147,000, more than twice the median income of all U.S. households, according to census data. Indian Americans also were more than twice as likely to have college degrees.

Indians received 74% of the H-1B visas for specialized occupations approved in fiscal 2021, and a record total of nearly 269,000 students from India were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities in 2022-23, according to the Institute of International Education.

Those numbers paint a picture of a high-achieving demographic that is well-suited for success in academic competitions.

Ganesh Dasari, whose daughter and son each made multiple appearances at the Scripps bee, holds a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Cambridge and was recruited to the U.S. to work for ExxonMobil on an H-1B visa. He quickly obtained a green card.

“Me and my wife, we came from a similar background. We both benefited from having the education ... so we put a lot of emphasis on educating our kids,” Dasari said. “We basically introduced them to anything academic, and a couple of sports, but clearly there was a bias in our thinking that education is a higher priority than sports.”

In his 2016 address to Congress, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned “spelling bee champions” among his country's contributions to the U.S. while that year's co-champs, Nihar Janga and Jairam Hathwar, watched from the gallery.

Even among Indian American spellers, a particular subgroup is overrepresented: families from the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where Telugu is the primary language. Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana, is India's information-technology hub and the region supplies many H-1B visa recipients.

“Whenever we go to the spelling bee events, everybody speaks that language,” Dasari said. “We realized there are so many people from the same state.”

14-year-old Dev Shah won the 95th Scripps National Spelling Bee with the final word of Psammophile

Deval Shah, the father of last year's champion, Dev Shah, grew up in the northwestern state of Gujarat and proudly noted Dev was the first spelling bee champion of Gujarati descent. The parents of the 2022 winner, Harini Logan, are from Chennai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Shah is an engineer, his wife is a physician, and both of Harini's parents were trained as software engineers.

Indian-born parents of kids with an affinity for spelling have a network of similar families to provide guidance and support, as well as access to organizations like the North South Foundation, which offers academic competitions aimed at the Indian diaspora.

“The reason Indian American immigrants really dominate, the main reason is the North South Foundation,” Shah said.

When Harini won her first NSF spelling competition, Ganesh Dasari was one of the judges, and “he was literally chasing us down” to tell them “Harini has tremendous potential to be on the national stage,” said Rampriya Logan, Harini's mother.

Ishika, a 13-year-old from Spring, Texas, who will be competing at Scripps this year for the third time, woke her parents at 6 a.m. the day after she lost a third-grade classroom spelling bee, saying she wanted to participate in more bees. Her mother, an IT manager who immigrated to the U.S. in 2006, then reached out to ask advice from other families from the Houston area whose children were high-level spellers.

The relative wealth and stability of Indian American households could lead observers to conclude their children are benefiting primarily from a privileged upbringing. The truth is more nuanced, said Devesh Kapur, a professor of South Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of “The Other One Percent: Indians in America.”

“It is important to note that the children participating in the spelling bee competition come from striving middle-class immigrant families, often in occupations like IT, and not from wealthier Indian American households in finance or tech start-ups or consulting,” Kapur said.

Natarajan, a Chicago-based physician and health care executive, now serves as the volunteer president of the NSF, and he experienced the spelling bee as a parent when his son, Atman Balakrishnan, competed. He said he sometimes feels out of place because he was born in the U.S. and he admires the grit of Indian-born parents and their children.

“It’s hard to describe, but it’s a very specific mindset that just drives effort and in many ways drives outcomes and sustainable success,” Natarajan said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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