Carson Middle School graduate celebrates ascent to Scripps spelling bee semifinals

Akshita Balaji on the steps of Rachel Carson Middle School (via Fairfax County Public Schools)

For 14-year-old Akshita Balaji, a combination of hard work and passion spelled success.

A Herndon resident, Akshita tied for 21st place in the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals, which was held virtually and aired on ESPN on Sunday (June 27) after the nationwide competition was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She spent around 12 hours per day preparing for the last six months and studied around 6,000 words per day.

“It was definitely a little hard at first but I kind of got used to it,” she said. “When I was studying, it didn’t feel like I was doing work, you know? Because one word led to another.”

When she saw a word, she wanted to know its relation to another or why it’s spelled that way, she explained.

Her Scripps placement marked the first time in at least a decade that a Fairfax County Public Schools student has advanced that far, according to FCPS via the Fairfax County Council of Parent Teacher Associations.

Since the event, she’s been taking it easy. Her family held a party the following day, and friends visited and brought her gifts, and family sent her flowers, gifts, and cake.

“Everybody posted a lot of messages for her on Facebook and, you know, different forums,” her mother, Sumitra Sampath, said. “We created a little scrapbook for her with all those messages…[and] pictures from different bees.”

A graduate of Herndon’s Rachel Carson Middle School, Akshita will attend ninth grade at Westfield High School in the fall and wants to become a surgeon one day.

Her vocabulary could come in handy for medical school. She notes that Romance languages like Spanish, which she studied last year, and French, which she plans to learn, have Latin roots that could help with the learning curve. She also knows Tamil and Hindi.

“Because of spelling, the Latin word, when it goes into French, you can tell what Latin word it came from,” she said. “That helps you really understand the language because you can…understand the roots and actually where it came from and not just memorize what it means.”

Sampath noted that her daughter, who won her first spelling bee when she was in first grade, watched the Scripps bees on TV as a kid, looked up to prestigious spellers in elementary school, and wondered how cool it would be to win.

Akshita hoped to reach the finals, which will take place in person at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort on July 8, but she says she’s interested in competing in other spelling bees this year.

Scripps semifinalists receive a commemorative medal and $500 gift card. The overall winner gets $50,000 and other prizes. The contest is limited to those who are in the eighth grade or below.

While Akshita has now aged out of the Scripps competition, her mother also notes that her daughter is interested in coaching younger students.

Akshita gained some experience during the pandemic, leading classes on various topics a few times each week on Zoom with young children of friends’ families in the area when schools shut down.

“She wants to…pursue coaching now,” Sampath said. “I think she will be a pretty good coach because she works really well with the kids and she has that knack.”

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