In the grand scheme of things, advancing to the Scripps National Spelling Bee is just another step for Varun Kukkillaya to take.
That step is a big one though, as Varun, 12, will join 280 other elementary and middle school students in National Harbor, Md. this week to compete for the nation’s highest spelling honors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Having competed in spelling bees since he was in fourth grade, Varun doesn’t look at competition outcomes in terms of failure or success because it all helps him grow as a student and person.
“I’m just going to try and get as far as I can,” Varun said. “Other people competing have amazing achievements, but I’m just going to try to represent West Virginia and get as far as I can.”
Varun, a seventh grader from John Adams Middle School in Charleston, feels the pressure of competing on a national stage against spellers who have been to nationals three, four and five times. But he’s already looking ahead to next year, regardless of what happens this upcoming week.
As a first-time participant in the national bee, Varun isn’t letting inexperience sway him because he has another year of spelling eligibility, a realization he is using to his advantage.
“Next year, I’ll be able to space out studying more so it’s not as stressful,” he said. “I think I can do better next year if I don’t make it because everything has prepared me to do it again.”
Even if he doesn’t take home the trophy, Varun has accomplished much this year. He advanced to and won his first Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee in March and came in fourth place in his first state geography bee in April.
Advancing to nationals has taken a year of preparation and battling through class, school, county and regional bees, something Varun said has taken up most of his time.
“It’s just a lot of spelling.”
But, Varun will have to do more than spell to advance past the brutal preliminary testing round at nationals next week.
Recently added to preliminaries is a vocabulary section, something Varun said will be difficult for him.
“I think I’m better at spelling than I am with definitions,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but I’m going to try and get as far as I can.”
To prepare for the addition of vocabulary, Varun altered his study routine. On top of studying spellings and languages of origin — like he did for regionals — Varun has read spelling and SAT prep books to familiarize himself with the words’ definitions.
His parents and siblings also have helped him by “constantly” quizzing him.
“I really want to thank my mom,” he said. “She’s been a great help.”
Varun’s mother, Sandyha, said he has tirelessly studied during the weeks leading to the bee.
“He has a very good memory, so he can remember things I can’t,” she said. “This is the best chance he has, so we told him he has to give it a shot.”
Varun said he is ready for the challenge, but is looking forward to the break that will come after.
“It’s all revolved around spelling so far because I’ve never been this far,” he said. “This is the nationals and it’s a big deal.”
When asked what he will do once the bee is finished, Varun said he’s going to relax, but not for long.
He was accepted into the Governor’s School of Math and Science, a week-long science and math camp at West Virginia University he will attend in June.
“As the days slowly wind down, I am beginning to understand how important this bee is and how big it is,” he said.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee has three components: preliminaries, semifinals and championship finals.
All 281 spellers will participate in preliminary testing and spelling Tuesday and Wednesday, but only a maximum of 50 can advance to semifinals.
The semifinal round will be Thursday, with a maximum of 12 spellers advancing to the championship round.
All Wednesday and Thursday events will air on ESPN networks. A complete schedule can be found at www.spellingbee.com.
Varun’s appearance in the national bee is sponsored by the Gazette-Mail, the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association and Alpha Natural Resources.
In addition to an all-expense-paid trip to the nation’s capital, he won a $2,500 college savings account from state treasurer John Perdue’s SMART529 program, courtesy of The Hartford.
For live, up-to-date coverage of the bee and Varun’s progress, follow wvschools on Twitter.
Reach Samuel Speciale at