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South Asian American Champs Spell for College, But Are Still in D-E-B-T

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

When they were asked the targeted destination of their spelling booty (reportedly more than $37,000 each), the National Spelling Bee champs both had the same answer.

Two words: College fund.

14-year-old Gokul Venkatacham of Chesterfield, Missouri, and 13-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, know the point of it all.

College is the next stop. There is no Pro-Spellers League, no Bee League.

But is $37,000 going to even pay for a top-flight school in five years?

Even if the co-champs had the full $37,000 to put into a 529 plan—where the money could grow and the distributions are tax-free if used for college expenses—the champs would still be wanting for cash after freshman year.

Can you spell D-E-B-T?

Using one of the web online calculators for college 529 plans, here are the numbers:

A $37,000 initial investment with a modest $100 a month saved ($1,200 a year) for four years (freshman year), with the investments compounding at a hopeful 12 percent, ends up being $64,644.

NYU just raised its tuition from $64,000 a year to a whopping $71,000.

Who knows what the tuition will be in four years for the spellers?

Of course, they may not want to go to NYU.

If Vanya Shivashankar wants to follow her sister to Columbia University in the Upper West side, the costs there remain around $64,000 a year—for now.

And then there’s the matter of getting a constant 12 percent return (no guarantee), and there’s the absolute necessity to save even more each year. If they were able to work at a fast-food joint and save an extra $100 (making it $200 a month total), our co-champs could net an additional $10,000 or so–$73,757.

Great. That’s freshman year.

Now what about the other three years of college.

Or, like star college basketball players, is one year enough?

I guess that could also be the Bill Gates plan. (Remember, he dropped out of the big H. I graduated!)

I don’t mean to spoil the joy of the championship spellers.

But I want folks to put these things in perspective.

Gokul got $37,000 for spelling “nunatak” with the speed of an assassin. (Don’t worry Catholic colleges, nunatak only sounds dangerous; it’s a mountain surrounded by glacial ice.)

And let’s not forget Vanya’s winning word, scherenschnitte, (rhymes with “bitty.”  It’s the art of decorative paper cutting. So would a Matisse, though French, be considered a scherenschnittist?)

Those aren’t just $50 words.

They’re more like $50,000 words.

Fortunately, as a scribe who writes for quarters, I know the true appraised value of a correctly spelled word.

C’mon Scripps. Boost up the cash prize for the champs.

If you saw the cablecast, I’m sure you noticed all the commercials on the prime-time ESPN cable space.

Please find more cash for the kids, please.

Compared to the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight, I’d even be willing to do a pay-per-view, with proceeds to the kids.

That’s how enjoyable I found this year’s bee.

The spellers are nerdy and interesting. Young bright kids with some personality like the semi-final leader Dev Jaiswal, 13, from Louisville, Mississippi.

He made it to round 9, but was stumped by the word iridocyclitis. Instead of the “c-y,” he said “c-i” and was eliminated.

People who follow me on twitter @emilamok know the whole thing seemed like a sporting event with no ball.

It was on ESPN, after all.

Back and forth the action went. And the only thing that determined the action was the words.

These are the kids we want in our colleges.

If you look at the rising percentage of Asian and South Asian kids in college, then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at the abundance of South Asian kids in the top 10 of this year’s bee.

Seven of 10, four in the top 5, and then the co-champs in the final two. All Americans of South Asian descent.

In fact, the last seven years the champs were all South Asians.

Which begged the question: Why aren’t the bee finalists more diverse than they are?

The words certainly were more diverse. Thamakau has no cow. It’s a Fijian canoe. Oflag isn’t an Irish flag. It’s a German prison. And a poblacion? That’s a Filipino word describing a local government’s town square.

All those words were used, as was the word “tartarean,” which is Latin from the Greek, describing that which relates to hell, which, to many, might define spelling bees.

Au contraire!

Bees are fun. And what does it really take for everyone to participate at the highest level? Smarts do help. But, in the end, it’s just work ethic. There’s no reason to suggest that whatever drive and competitiveness we might apply to sports with balls, can’t also be applied to sports without balls.

I suppose some of us would just allocate our gifts elsewhere.

And then rely on spell-check.

But it’s a lost opportunity for many, especially as a college funding source.

Now if the bee keepers don’t beef up those cash prizes, I swear, for my third act I’m going to be the Don King of Pay-Per-View Spelling Bees!

Vanya and her sister, the first-ever siblings to win in a fight to the finish? Oh, that  would put the last Pac/May debacle to shame!

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator who writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund blog. Contact him at



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