Tag Archives: #spellingbee

SandiSpell: Spelling Bee Champ to Tollywood Remix Artist

Masala In Ur Dosa – A column addressing identity through the lens of a Telugu Indian-American in conversation with his South Asian peers.

After a hectic day in high school, comparing notes with classmates to understand derivatives and limits to traveling to various suburbs in central Massachusetts to play tennis, nothing grounded me more than resting my forehead on the window of a moving school bus listening to my favorite song. The melodious vocals of Sadhana Sargam on her award-winning song ‘Manasa’ from the Telugu movie ‘Munna’. Fast forward 10 years, I still find comfort listening to Desi tracks every morning on my way to work. Recently, I came across a mix on SoundCloud called “A Decade in Rewind: Tollywood Edition“. A mix of familiar Telugu classics I grew up with blended with hip hop vocals and beats by a name familiar to those in the desi dance circuit, SandiSpell aka Snigdha Nandipati. Having seen her name as the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion, I knew I had to speak to her and find out how she was breathing new life into songs that of us grew up with.

My interviews on ‘Masalainurdosa presents’ primarily focus on identity. What has been a constant amongst the different personalities I encounter is this – this generation finds its own unique way to express their South Asian Identity. For Snigdha, one such outlet of her identity was through her music. Like many, she grew up singing and continued to hone her craft at Yale through her campus acapella group. While she learned how to harmonize with others, dissect melodies and beats, she wanted to implement the same techniques to the Telugu classics she grew up with. In between recording covers and acapellas of Telugu songs, she found herself in a community that many young South Asian creatives find their roots – The Desi Dance Network Forums. Check out my interview with Snigdha Nandipati on ‘Masalainurdosa presents’ to hear about what her Telugu identity means to her, and how she expresses it through her music.


Prithvi Ganesh Mavuri, MD is an Internal Medicine physician in the Southeast region in the United States. However, his other passion lies in learning about South Asian languages and cultures.

No Academic Competition, No Problem!

Eighth-grader Navneeth Murali was “totally shattered and devastated” when he learned in April that the Scripps National Spelling Bee to be held the following month was canceled. He has aged out of the competition and under current rules cannot participate next year. Like other competitive spellers, mathematicians, geography whizzes, and young scientists, it was a season of disappointments, as practically all academic competitions have been canceled.

When competitions are stopped and there seems nothing to win, it seems the students committed to these institutions do not stop studying.

We often think of studying after school to be a chore. The assumption is that youth want to do “fun” activities rather than academic ones. A school principal I spoke with said, “I can’t believe you’re going to find kids who are passionate about long division. I just don’t believe it.” The cancellation of these competitions presumably would give these kids a reason to finally relax.

Having interviewed dozens of children who compete in spelling bees and/or math competitions in elementary and middle school for my book, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough, it is clear that they are passionate about what they are pursuing. Yes, studying is tedious. Even the most committed youth feel staring at worksheets can become “utter toil” at times. They put in hours each weekday and weekend — on top of homework — to these pursuits. 

But while many start their academic pursuit because parents drag them, those who stick with it have a sincere interest. As one spelling contestant at a national finals competition told me, “I just viewed it more as fun than work.” Years later, former contestants appreciate how much they learned not just in their particular subject but also about the process of learning. They had confidence that they could tackle major challenges.

Stopping would give the wrong message, that the only reason to bother reviewing German-origin words and quadratic equations was to win the championship. Educators know that the emphasis should on the studying process and effort, not the outcome. The best way to alleviate the sense that all that studying was a waste is for youth to keep studying, for it affirms the fact that the youth has an interest in the subject and gains through the process of studying.  

Just as a child should not stop practicing baseball or softball in the backyard because their championship game has been called off, the same applies to those training for academic competitions.

Rather than stop preparing, kids should study in a more relaxed manner. Children should find a new routine, one that dwells on the enjoyable parts of the subject rather than geared towards what weaknesses they need to work on in order to win. This should be a time to remind them what they enjoyed about their academic pursuits in the first place, before the pressure of the national competition came on, just like the ball player remembering what playing catch in the backyard used to feel like before the drills and practices for the big game got intense. 

What’s more, one never knows what the preparation will lead to. A few weeks after feeling devastated, Murali was crowned a spelling bee champion in a national virtual bee hosted by two former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalists. He has another chance later this summer to do it again in another national bee. The South Asian Spelling Bee (which Murali won last year) may also host an annual competition this summer.

Take it from a former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist who has since coached spellers. Dev Jaiswal offered, “My advice for current eight-graders is to continue studying at a comfortable intensity. I would have been very disappointed if the spelling bee was ultimately canceled, but I would not think of my extra time spent studying as a waste.” 

Pawan Dhingra is a professor at Amherst College and author of Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough. He appears in the Netflix documentary, Spelling the Dream.