Newsletter: September - 2017

Dear NSF participants and families,

We hope this newsletter finds you having a fun-filled, productive summer 2017! As we head into September gearing up for another school year, we at the editorial team hope to update you with not only news, but some thoughts on the nature of competitions themselves. In this newsletter, you can get to know 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship Finalist and NSF alum Shrinidhi Gopal a bit better with a video interview by an NSF newsletter staffer. Also, you can find out more about the social sciences and humanities, and some of the opportunities these fields present to high schoolers.

I wanted to take a moment in this editorial to address the increasingly discussed concept of mindfulness as it relates to competition. Anyone who tuned into this year’s National Spelling Bee Championship Finals on ABC, even briefly, was a witness to an amazing display of “cool logic in the face of fire” (to adapt a quote from our favorite Hogwarts headmaster). Not only did the eventual champion, Ananya Vinay, and runner-up Rohan Rajeev (also both NSF alums), go through nearly 20 rounds of correctly spelling the most obscure words that the officials could throw at them, they also did so non-stop: no commercial breaks, no water breaks. On that stage, with thousands of eyes on them, with cameras recording their every movement, where they had been spelling from the early hours of the day in the semifinals, the finalists’ eyes were only for the pronouncer, and ears only for their words. It was intellect and maturity and poise in its purest form.

Year after year, spellers must look inside themselves and summon these qualities to take the stage in Washington, D.C. – and at every spelling bee around the country. Success in such an event is impossible without an admirable amount of focus and dedication. So, with this editorial, I want to convey that yes, the spelling bee and academic competitions help tremendously with scholastic pursuits long after we stop competing. But these other, harder-to-define abilities required by the bee – carrying ourselves with poise, remaining calm under stress, and staying in the moment – are invaluable as they apply to our lives for far longer than we stay in school. Nailing a job interview, or not panicking in the aftermath of a car accident, or dealing with the challenges posed by our financial lives – these are skills impossible to learn in a classroom. The spelling bee, however, can offer us a treasure trove in its potential to develop mental clarity and strength.

So I commend all NSF participants for showing these skills every year in regional and national contests. Many struggle with these abilities through their entire lives. Yet students who participate in these competitions display a level of maturity far beyond their years – and they will reap the benefits of this their whole lives. I encourage you all to continue challenging yourselves and growing, and I thank NSF for providing children (like myself, once upon a time!) with the opportunity to do so.

Ramya Auroprem
NSF Newsletter Editorial Team Member

“The whole time I was sitting and before I would spell, there were a million thoughts going through my head. But before I would go on stage I shoved all that away and just focused on Dr. Bailey and the word I would spell. I tuned out all the cameras and everything”
- Shrinidhi Gopal, 7th Place SCRIPPS 2017 Winner

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PC: Shrinidhi Thirumalai

Confidence and focus was the key for Shrinidhi during the SCRIPPS competition. She tuned out the lights and camera, and just focused on Dr. Bailey and the word. And, it payed off- Shrinidhi won 7th place at SCRIPPS 2017. Of course, she didn’t get there overnight. Shrinidhi says many previous competitions and failed words has got her here. And, a little unusual trick that she found works for her - cracking her knuckles right before going on stage.

Watch the full interview of Shrinidhi interviewing Shrinidhi here (Yes, we both have the same name, purely by coincidence). Or, read some highlights below. For readability, Shrinidhi Gopal and I are labeled by our last names: Gopal and Thirumalai.

Thirumalai: Hi! Thanks for being our first video interview

Gopal: Hi, thank you for having me

Thirumalai: Tell me a little about you for people who don’t know you

Gopal: My name is Shrinidhi Gopal, I’m from San Ramon California and I’m going to night grade this year. I love to sing, dance, and play the piano, and of course I love spelling as well.

Thirumalai: Tell me a bit about your experience with SCRIPPS

Gopal: So yea, this was my first and last time in Scripps. And really the experience was just something I’ll never forget because it was so well organized and so incredibly planned that the entire trip was amazing. I met so many people who I’ll continue to talk to and share a bond with because we shared that memorable week in SCRIPPS.

Thirumalai: So how did you get there? Do you remember one of the first times you did a spelling competition and how you felt?

Gopal: I think one of my first spelling competitions was the school bee in 4th grade, and probably NSF. I did the senior spelling bee in 4th grade. And that’s when I understood the level of competition and how the bee would be and how the words would be. And it was after NSF and the school be that I really became interested in participating in spelling competitions. So I really have to thank NSF for giving me that opportunity.

Thirumalai: How would you compare your own experience on stage from then to now?

Gopal: You know, before, I used to be very nervous. And it wasn’t even heavy lights, blocks of cameras, type of stage. When I was young, I wasn’t in such a highly publicized setting. But back then I was really nervous which contributed to a lot of times I would misspell. That nervousness wouldn't help at all. But then later, I learned to focus on the word I was spelling and not if I would miss or not but just focus on the word I was spelling.

Thirumalai: I can’t imagine because if I was on stage for so long, I think I would have so many thoughts going through my head especially because I’ve practiced for so long. To put away all that and just focus on being in the moment...I really commend that.

Gopal: Thank you! *laugh* The whole time I was sitting and before I would spell, there were a million thoughts going through my head. But before I would go on stage I shoved all that away and just focused on Dr. Bailey and the word I would spell. I tuned out all the cameras and everything

Thirumalai: I noticed as I was watching the competition, it was really long, and it didn’t seem like there were too many ad breaks. I just wanted to hear from your perspective, did you feel it was really long, and how did you develop the composure to stay focused as long as you did?

Gopal: Okay so I think it started off with morning finals. Every three spellers or so, they would say there's an ad break so they’d say “you guys just have to wait there”. And they would bring water over and things but it was really nerve wracking because we were sitting there in anticipation for our was a long period of sitting there and waiting. Our standing up time and spelling was max 10 - 15 minutes. So I think everyone had to have a lot of patience to sit through that thing. But we all kind of managed through it because we all had the drive to stay in the competition, you know.

Thirumalai: Well good job! Where does your drive come from?

Gopal: Honestly - probably just my interest for spelling and...I really like competing. Like every time I go to a competition I get this thrill that I don’t get anywhere else. Competing is one of my favorite things to do so that’s where my inner drive to study and do well at spelling comes from.

Thirumalai: Do you have a story or example which reminds you of that drive?

Gopal: Honestly, I would say, going to SCRIPPS. At the same time of Scripps, that was our 8th grade graduation ceremony. And everyone was really hyped about that ceremony because I would miss that and the trip to Great America. And that’s when I kind of reminded myself that I had worked so hard for Scripps that just to forget about that kind of thing, and just to focus on the task as hand.

Thirumalai: Wow. In a way, it’s like the sacrifices are what remind you to stay motivated.

Gopal: Yea. Because I had so many activities as well as spelling, I had to stop hanging out with my friends. So I missed a lot of birthday parties and things like that. But in the end, it was all worth it because I got to do what I love a lot.

Thirumalai: Do you have any advice for young spellers?

Gopal: I would say, don’t get nervous during competition because honestly getting nervous is the worst things you can do. Because when I got nervous I would either overcomplicate the world or second guess myself and in the spur of the moment I would get the word wrong. Or, I would rush and wouldn’t listen to all the information or get everything I needed to do well. Ask for all the information, it really helps.

Thirumalai: Could you give an example of when you were younger and being nervous cost you a word?

Gopal: There was a local competition, it was called the pan Asian spelling bee. And my word was avocados. And at the moment, I was so nervous, I don't even know what I was thinking about, I was like…”Oh my parents are going to be disappointed” In reality, nothing happened honestly, I was so nervous that I didn’t even bother asking for anything, and I ended up spelling the word wrong.

Thirumalai: How did you spell it?

Gopal: I think I spelled it a-v-a-c-a-d-o-s. So yea, bad times.

Thirumalai: How did you get over the nervousness? Would you do any little things before going on stage to boost your confidence?

Gopal: Well this is really weird but every time I go up on stage, I crack my knuckles right before. And I think whenever I do it, I get the word right. I started this year in the school spelling bee. And I think whenever I do it, I get the world right.

Thirumalai: Does cracking your knuckles give you confidence?

Gopal: Yea! I think that sound gives me the extra boost that I need.

Thirumalai: *Laughs* I can’t crack my knuckles. I’ve done some other things like the power pose. I become as big as possible *puts hands on hips* basically, and I do feel the confidence come in. I go the bathroom and just do that for a couple minutes.

Gopal: Yea, I think you have to find what works for you. I used to try to do the power pose, but I just ended up feeling stupid after. So I just had to find what comforted me the most.

Thirumalai: Is there anything your parents know to do to get you into that zone?

Gopal: Hm, I don’t know why because I don’t like it when my parents are super nice the day before competition. I just want it to be like a normal day because it makes me feel less pressured, honestly.

Thirumalai: Takes the pressure off. That’s nice, good tip. Do you have any last words, last thoughts?

Gopal: So I would say mostly, do spelling because you have the love for it, the passion for it, and the drive for it. Don’t do it because someone expects you to do it. If you love geography do geography. I used to love geography for a lot, and I used to do NSF geography competitions as well and I went to the states competition for the geography bee as well. And eventually I just grew more interested in spelling so I began to focus on that more. Just follow what your interests are. And during competition, don’t get nervous, just focus on the competition, and you’ll do great.

Thirumalai: Thank you!

Gopal: Thanks so much, thanks for having me.

Shrinidhi Thirumalai
NSF Newsletter Editorial Team Member

Meena Venkataramanan is a rising freshman at Harvard University, where she plans to pursue government. An Arizona native, she served as the president of her high school’s speech and debate team and was active in several public service activities throughout high school. In addition to being a Coca-Cola Scholar, a United States Senate Youth Program Delegate, and an ALA Girls Nation Delegate, Meena most recently earned the title of World Champion at the Optimist International Oratorical Contest held in June 2017. The following article is largely based upon her personal experiences participating in social sciences/humanities opportunities throughout high school.


For decades, many Indian-American students have excelled in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, collectively captured by the familiar four-letter acronym, STEM. But as of late, a new acronym, STEAM, has grown in popularity and incorporates a fifth letter representing the arts and its subcategories, which have become increasingly valued in recent years with respect to launching innovative career paths that fulfill the ever-present demands of the 21st century workplace.

As such, more and more Indian-American students are deviating from traditional STEM paths and are considering careers rooted in the arts – specifically the humanities and social sciences. In the eyes of some parents in the Indian-American community, such career paths may lack promise and payoff at first glance, especially when it comes to admission into selective universities. After all, we often hear about STEM-focused students – including those who win international science fairs, co-author scientific publications, and design patent-pending technologies – earning admission into top colleges. By all means, such achievements are extremely commendable and deserve to be lauded. But less often do we hear about the equally impressive achievements of these students’ social sciences/humanities counterparts.

The reality is that there are many premier social sciences/humanities opportunities in which students can partake in high school – opportunities that bring both promise and payoff not only in the college admissions process, but also in the workplace of tomorrow. While the following list is far from exhaustive, below are a few valuable opportunities that humanities/social sciences-focused students might consider during their time in high school:

Social Sciences/Humanities Extracurricular Activities

Public and private schools across the country tend to offer extracurricular activities including speech and debate/forensics, Mock Trial, and Model United Nations for humanities/social sciences-minded students. In addition to exposing students to current events, international relations, and the law, such programs encourage students to become better public speakers, more experienced debaters, and stronger writers – three skills that become covetable assets in the college admissions process, during which students must compose well-written essays and partake in interviews that are pivotal in deciding whether or not they earn admission into the colleges of their choice.

Theatre is also a valuable activity in teaching students how to express themselves in cogent ways and develop strong articulation skills – two strengths that will prove valuable in both the college admissions process and in careers related to social sciences/humanities.

For the business-minded, extracurricular activities such as DECA and FBLA offer opportunities for students to partake in business and management simulations, in which they can develop specific occupation-based skills that will aid them in their future career paths.

Finally, many schools offer public service-related activities, including volunteerism clubs such as Key Club, which is sponsored by the international service organization, Kiwanis. Several other esteemed service organizations, including Optimist International, Rotary International, and the YMCA, offer public service opportunities to high school students, including Junior Optimist clubs, essay and oratorical contests, and civic engagement activities (see below).

Law and Government Programs

For students who specifically hope to pursue careers in and government, there is a multitude of esteemed programs in which they can participate – some that are entirely cost-free to students and their families.

One such program is Youth and Government, a civic engagement opportunity sponsored by the YMCA through which students build and participate in model governments at the local, state, and federal levels. Youth and Government programs are located at YMCAs across the country, and students can attend national conferences in addition to advocating for their immediate communities.

Localities across the United States also offer youth advisory councils, which range from citywide congresses to statewide commissions. Often, students must be elected, appointed, or nominated to serve as representatives on these councils, a process which simulates potential careers in government and public service. As members of these councils, students use parliamentary procedure to set agendas and priorities and serve as representatives for their fellow youth.

In the October 2016 edition of the North South Foundation newsletter, I wrote about Boys and Girls State, which are sponsored by the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary, respectively. These programs come at little cost to students and their families, and local chapters of the AL/ALA often sponsor students to attend these programs. Similar to Youth and Government, these weeklong programs held in each U.S. state give students the chance to build and participate in their own state government by running for different positions as well as drafting and passing legislation. At the end of the week, two students are chosen to represent their state at Boys and Girls Nation, which are premier, all-expenses-paid weeklong programs held in Washington, D.C. during which students create a model federal government.

Similar to Boys and Girls Nation is the United States Senate Youth Program (USSYP), for which students must apply through their states’ Departments of Education. Two students from each state are selected to attend an all-expenses-paid, weeklong program during which they meet and hear addresses from esteemed leaders of the federal government, including Senators, the President and Vice President, and a Supreme Court Justice. Each student also receives a $10,000 scholarship to college.

Scholarship Opportunities

Several opportunities mentioned above offer scholarships to participating students. USSYP, Boys and Girls State/Nation, and certain speech and debate organizations offer scholarships, in addition to Optimist International, Rotary International, and the American Legion, which offer oratorical and essay contests (with topics related to the social sciences/humanities) and provide scholarship money as prizes. Other service organizations also offer scholarships specifically for students who plan to pursue careers in law, government, and/or public service. By investing in the futures of students whose interests lie in the social sciences/humanities, these organizations are a testament to the promise and payoff of such careers in the 21st century.

Concluding Remarks

While many Indian-American high school students have succeeded in STEM-based career paths, the humanities and social sciences can also launch equally valuable occupations in the workplace of tomorrow. In addition, opportunities for high school students rooted in these fields can both aid in the selective college admissions process and can lessen families’ financial contribution to their students’ college educations by offering significant scholarship money to students who are passionate about writing, speaking, law, government, public service, business, and the like. As the workforce continues to evolve in the wake of technological and social progress, careers in the humanities and social sciences are being increasingly fulfilled by diverse individuals. As such, pursuing passions that lie among these fields may be a worthwhile endeavor for high-school students in the Indian-American community.

Meena Venkataramanan
NSF Newsletter Editorial Team Member

It’s a sad but true reality that there are not many Indian American writers.

That’s what makes the late Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air even more moving to the Indian American reader. It’s the story of a neurosurgical resident who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 37, must suddenly learn to grapple with his perceptions about a life that is to be much briefer than he intended. It’s a beautiful and thoughtful reflection on literature, medicine, family, and life; a testament to the power of poise and strength.

For good reason, When Breath Becomes Air has received critical acclaim, gaining recognition from publications like the New York Times and the Guardian. It is by all accounts a well-written novel. As numerous critics have before me, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to any reader - Indian American or not.

But what made Kalanithi’s novel especially poignant to me was the parallels between my life and his. I’d opened the pages with the expectation of reading nothing more than a poetic account of a doctor on his deathbed. Instead, in one terrifying and unnerving moment, I realized that I was reading about more than a man named Paul. I was reading about myself.

Kalanithi, like us, is a shining example of the American Dream. He’s a child of Indian immigrants who drove him to succeed (at one point, he writes about how his mother gave him reading lists as a child and single-handedly fought to add AP classes to the local curriculum). His life is shaped by his education as he pursues degrees from Yale, Cambridge, and Stanford. His life is the ideal of many like me-- not without challenge and hard work, but full of aspiration and fulfilment.

Kalanithi’s life diverges from the Indian American fantasy without warning when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even before CT scans reveal multiple tumors, he knows what is coming: at first slowly, and then with grim certainty. In that moment when his life veers off the tracks, he writes, “The future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated (Kalanithi).”

There were many heartbreaking moments in the book. But for me, this line hit the hardest. I realized that although we were separated by many years, degrees, and ultimately, by death - I wasn’t that different from Paul Kalanithi.

We both strove for a life of success, never content with the confines of an “average” existence. We both loved to write, although we put off this dream in the face of more imminent goals. We both studied and strove, not just for ourselves, but for an entire family of long-named people, some across the ocean, who had saved and schemed to bring us to where we were today.

By all measures, Kalanithi’s story is one of reflection and hope in the midst of tragedy. But to me, it was more, because I realized that Paul’s mistakes were those that any Indian American student could make. While this realization gave me a shock, it also gave me an opportunity: an opportunity to learn from this brilliant man’s wisdom.

Because in the midst of all of our preparation and education, life might throw us a curveball. Then we might realize, just like Kalanithi did, that while learning how to win spelling bees and take SATs and score Ivy League admissions, we forgot to learn to live.

Malavika Kannan
NSF Youth Ambassador

Sometimes the most unexpected things bring us the greatest happiness of all. That’s why I can boldly claim that this summer, I was truly the happiest person on the planet.

It was month of April, and I naturally grew more eager for my upcoming visit to Karnataka, India; where my family is from. I longingly awaited meeting family, procuring new clothes, devouring traditional foods, explore historical places and most of all: fulfilling a new dream from long time to motivate someone in my life. Soon after the annual NSF competitions in March, I came across an opportunity that NSF offered, where high school/college students from America can become a Youth Ambassador. A Youth ambassador would share their experience and knowledge by conducting workshops on interesting subjects that are useful for students. I immediately signed up by writing an essay explaining why I will be a good candidate. In the weeks following, after a month of waiting, I was at-last given the splendid dream-like opportunity to become an NSF Youth Ambassador! I was so enraptured for this window of opportunity.

Being so excited for this new experience, I spent my next few weeks to prepare for workshop material for essay writing, public speaking and spelling bee, which are three extremely vital educational topics that every student should attain in order to reach future success. Meanwhile, in my school, I started a fundraiser to raise money and awareness to motivate my fellow schoolmates. I was not only supported by my school principal and teachers for taking up such a tough but Nobel role, my schoolmates supported me by raising around $150 to cover any expenses for workshop materials. My parents also pitched in and sponsored additional materials such as dictionaries, school supply and prizes.

After months of preparation and a flight to India, I presented my workshop plans at a government aided school called SJM Middle School. One of the good school which educates students from rural villages surrounding Chitradurga, a mid-size town in the state of Karnataka, India. With the alliance of an amazingly flexible headmistress of the SJM School, I went over my self-prepared workshops. Impressed as she was, I received the astounding chance to conduct workshop for 150 students from 6th, 7th and 8th grades combined, for a week. The first day of my workshop, I barely could find the courage to introduce myself. Even after all of this preparation, nothing could compose me for my initial fear as I was constantly thinking about how I am going to establish that connection and get their attention. After all, I just completed my 8th grade and almost same as their age. However, once I started with my introduction and why I am chosen as NSF Youth Ambassador, I could already see curiosity in every student’s eyes, and I never wanted to stop!

I started my workshop with essay writing; went over what an essay is and talked up different types of essays. Together we dissected and examined a variety of introductions, body paragraphs, conclusions like a detective; to allow for stronger essays and less common errors. To spruce up the lesson, I gave them colorful highlighters to highlight important notes from my pocket. By the end of class, upon their request, they eagerly challenged themselves to a persuasive essay competition with the topic, “How can I improve my school?” We brainstormed few ideas together, until each student choose their own topic and eagerly started constructing their essays. Some common topics were recycling, adding a sport center and big support for “Swachha Bharath - Keep India Clean”. Each student was determined to outdo and outwit their companions in this unique competition. The resulting essays were top notch!

Another important educational skill every student should attain is public speaking, which was exactly what my second lesson was all about. It was a new and exciting topic each student was willingly eager to endeavor. To effectively show everybody how to write and present a speech, I went over some simple but most effective steps that I follow to prepare for my competitions. After some analyzation, and sharing my top tips to success, I confronted them with the challenge of writing and performing their own speeches through a public speaking for later that week. Students from all three grades bravely accepted this challenge!!! I was so proud of all the students, who were able to conquer their stage fear and present an amazing speech in front of me, their teachers, and their Headmistresses.

Another vital skill all students should perfect is spelling, which was covered on my third lesson. To add some fun, I reinforced all of the rules through a spelling scramble game, a word search, and a crossword to finish that day off. All of the students loved playing games, trying to prove their new excelling spelling skills to me: “Teacher! Teacher! I finished first!” or “Teacher I got them all right!” Seeing their enthusiasm made me think I might have influenced someone in my life. Every minute I spent at SJM, each student respected me for coming all the way from USA and sharing my experience. I was touched by their welcoming attitude, and happiness for learning. Daily when I left, students would come out of their classrooms to exclaim goodbye, as I passed by in the halls. Students and Teachers thanked me for choosing their school, but really I should be the one thanking them for giving me an opportunity. As it is with their amazing cooperation at SJM, that has allowed me to make at least a small impact on the lives of 150 incredible students and motivate many more students to participate in similar program.

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Many of the students I taught barely had aspirations or time for learning resourceful skills outside of school. None of the children were informed about the key topics, that I had covered, that could help them towards their future. But that didn’t stop them from trying. Every time a students shouted out an answer or smiled at their success, I felt so unbelievably happy, and proud of their learning capabilities. Their determination to study hard, active participation, and their eagerness to outsmart their companions made them all the smartest of their school. The student’s such spontaneous responses to my teaching from day one, not only encouraged me to continue teaching to make a difference, but also excited me that they wanted to learn.

I hope with my role as NSF Youth Ambassador, I was able to inspire the students to work on their core skills along with the classroom subjects, and motivated them to participate in similar activities to spread the knowledge. And every other student, starting from back at my middle school to everyone in my friends circle, I hope I have influenced them to step up to these challenges, and spend their time to share knowledge for those who could use it the most.

Though it takes a lot of hard work and commitment, it was truly rewarding and fun experience. Seeing their work ethic to their outstanding common sense, or their ability to capture things so quickly to their curiosity to connect with other parts of the world, I can honestly say, that the SJM students have also influenced me. Thank you so much NSF for this unimaginable opportunity, and my parents for pitching in to help supporting me and attending to all of my needs. I cannot wait to do it all again!

Thrusha Puttaraju
NSF Youth Ambassador

Do you have a story, poem, essay, or some artwork to share? Please send an e-mail with the attachments to In addition to your entry, please send in a scanned copy of your photograph, name of your school and city, your grade level, and your hobbies.


Ramya Auroprem, Shrinidhi Thirumalai, Malavika Kannan, Varsha Ramakrishnan, Dinold Jeeva, Meena Venkataramanan, and Madhav Durbha

Note: The views expressed in this Newsletter are those of the authors and may not represent the views and opinions of NSF.

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