Wednesday, June 1, 2011

AFTER THE BEE: We're blessed this year to have three-time top ten finisher JJ Goldstein among our contributors (and recruiters of even more contributors). She's been doggedly tracking down some other former Bee standouts, so y'all can see what happens to these great kids when the bell stops ringing and the competition is over. This is the first of two parts, and we start with JJ herself:

JJ Goldstein: #142, 2000 (7th), #141, 2002 (3rd), & #17, 2003 (3rd)

I just graduated from Harvard with a degree in Neurobiology, and I am going to be working for the year while applying to medical school for the fall of 2012.

When I watch the National Spelling Bee now, it feels like a lifetime ago that it was me up on that stage. Thirteen years ago, I sat in the audience in the Grand Hyatt Ballroom watching my older sister compete in the bee. As an eight-year-old, I decided that I wanted to compete in the spelling bee, not because I particularly liked spelling or wanted to win the prizes, but because Bee Week was filled with fun activities for the spellers and their families, and I wanted the chance to experience that again. However, as I studied for and competed in the Bee myself, it became about a lot more than that. I am forever grateful for the friends I made and for the haven the bee provided for one week a year where enjoying learning and being good at academics wasn’t a reason to be made fun of. On the educational side, in addition to learning how to spell some crazy words and recognize Greek and Latin roots (which was of course helpful while studying for the SATs, not to mention its contribution to my reputation of being good at word games :)), I learned how to stay motivated and continue working toward a goal, even when there is no one telling me I have to—and I think this work ethic has been crucial to success in both academics and extracurricular activities. And while it was really frustrating to come so close to the top and just miss (twice), especially since it was largely because of factors out of my control, I learned how to handle that “failure” and to embrace the overall experience rather than being upset over “what-ifs.”

The Bee has changed a lot over the past eight years—I personally have had a hard time keeping track of what the written round counts for, how long spellers have at the microphone to spell, and what time on which channel each round will be airing. And as the Bee has grown in popularity, the focus has seemed to shift a little too much from celebrating the spellers’ achievements to garnering as much media attention as possible. (I for one am very glad that the final rounds are no longer airing on ABC, but I still wish they would just get rid of the prime-time focus and go back to finishing in the afternoon—I remember being exhausted spelling at 4pm, so I can’t imagine how tired the finalists must be spelling at 10pm!) But however much I don’t agree with many of the changes the Bee has made, I think that most of the valuable lessons and experiences are still there to be had, and I hope that the current spellers are still getting as much out of it, outside of all the media hoopla and regardless of what place they end up in, that I and other former spellers were able to.

Nupur Lala: #37, 1998 (81st) & #165, 1999 (1st)

I went to the University of Michigan and graduated in 2007 with a BS in Brain, Behavior and Cognitive Sciences.

I am in the process of applying to medical school. I worked for 2.5 years after college in the MIT Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory as a technical assistant, which is the same as what other institutions call a laboratory technician. The current goal is to just get into medical school first but ideally, I'd like to be a physician at an academic hospital where I could both practice and conduct basic research. I'd also like to create and maintain a serious blog and if I have enough material, write longer-form fiction and non-fiction. My other life goals are to start a family, own a dog, teach yoga at some point and compete in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Yeah, I'm a nerd.

My experience in spelling bees had an immeasurable impact on my intellectual and personal development. I learned how to handle both success and defeat gracefully at a young age. When you are pondering what could have been if you had added the extra m or switched an "a" for an "i," it is not easy to remain poised. I know this from personal experience. But it sure is important to try. Success is also an outcome that is rarely based on the efforts of a sole individual. Factors such as luck and support systems often play a big role in getting people to the top. I owe a large part of my success in spelling bees and in life to my mom, who tirelessly prepared me because she believed so strongly in my ability to do well. Remembering what a team effort spelling bees were for me reminds me still to stay humble, reflective and gracious about success when it comes-and to give credit where it is due.

The nature of the bee is that it is a largely unpredictable competition. In that way spelling bees are a great metaphor for life. A speller could do very well in one bee and be hit with the one word they did not remember from the Webster's Dictionary during the next. I learned that dusting myself off and moving on was the best way to keep going in the face of outcomes that you often cannot control. Even if you hear the bell earlier than you expected, you will eventually become a champion if you grab your cookie from the comfort room, wipe your tears and move on bravely to the next challenge. Perseverance, especially when the rewards are uncertain, is what sets people apart at both the spelling bee and in life.

I look back very fondly on this experience and will always think of it as one of the most interesting and exciting endeavors of my life. I wish everyone who is reading this a happy spelling bee experience, whether they are watching from home or competing this week or in the future. It was an incredible ride and I am so fortunate to have been able to take it.

Aliya Deri: #24, 2004 (27th) & #21, 2005 (2nd)

I am currently a sophomore at Stanford University, majoring in Computer Science with a minor in Modern Languages. I'm working hard as my sophomore year draws to a close and planning for a summer internship in computational biology with the Developmental Biology department at Stanford. I hope to eventually work in Natural Language Processing, travel the world, and hopefully train future spelling bee stars!

Watching the bee each year, I marvel at the intellectual prowess of the spellers who followed in my and my peers' footsteps. I'm not the speller I once was, but the words I once mastered often echo in my head as Dr. Bailly pronounces them. The roots and patterns may be only half-remembered, the piles of study lists and notes exiled to a forgotten bin, but the memories of those two weeks can never be forgotten. The NSB gave me the confidence to speak fearlessly on a stage, the strength to be gracious in victory and content in defeat, and--most importantly--the gift of many close friends whose humor and support will continue to enrich my life.

Naomi Ahsan: #147, 2002 & #24, 2003

I am currently studying Neuroscience at the University of Rochester, getting ready to complete a fifth year as a Take Five Scholar to study public health. I hope to practice medicine and maintain interest in public health.

The National Spelling Bee instilled a very strong sense of academics as a sure path to achievement. I got out of my participating in the NSB what I put in, in terms of time, dedication, development of skills. I learned that hard work would pay off. I think my participation in NSB had a strong relationship also to my passions for reading and writing-- I don't know if its that those things made me a better speller, or that becoming a better speller made me a better reader and writer. It's probably some of both! Also, after studying for the NSB, even three years later, SAT vocabulary was nothing to be afraid of.


  1. I'm concerned Aliya is going to create the Watson of the National Spelling Bee.

  2. isaac_spaceman8:45 PM

    I love, LOVE that you guys are letting us know what you're doing now.  Most people don't get more than one chance (if that) to do something really great and unusual in their lives, but one of the things I love about the Bee is that it feels like a bonus chance at greatness.  You can reach the end of this strange and amazing and intense thing, and then at the end of that day you're still a teenager and you get to start all over again.     

  3. Marsha10:01 PM

    Thanks for joining us here and for sharing, everyone. I, for one, love the Bee coverage here because I love seeing young people celebrated for their intellectual achievements, and it's so nice to hear how well you all are doing.

  4. Wow - you're an impressive group! (Not surprising at all, but still great to hear.)  I also find it interesting how many of you are in the sciences, but have also kept a hand in languages/writing.