Joskin. That was the word eighth grader Jiya Shetty of Columbia spelled correctly to land herself a spot in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“I did not know how to spell the word,” she tells Missourinet. “So, I just had to figure it out. It’s a slang word and it’s from English. So, I knew it would be pretty straightforward and it wouldn’t have any crazy letters or like silent letters.”

Courtesy of Scripps National Spelling Bee

Shetty will be joined by more than 200 spellers from across the nation for this year’s competition, including seven other Missouri kids. The event begins virtually on Saturday.

The student Shetty defeated to make it to the national bee was not a stranger. Get this – it was none other than her fifth-grade sister, Aanya.

“My sister and I were competing for the last few rounds in the regional spelling bee. We were just going back and forth. It’s really a family thing at this point. My teachers all congratulated me and my classmates did,” says Shetty. “That was really special for me because it kind of felt like it was a community thing. Everybody was so proud of me. So, I was really happy.”

Shetty, who attends Smithton Middle School in Columbia, has been competing since she was a fourth grader. This year is the last year she can compete.

“There is so much to be excited about because I wasn’t able to do it last year due to the pandemic. They had to cancel nationals even though I qualified,” she says. “So, this will be my first year competing (at nationals). That’s super special, given that I’ve been competing for so long.”

As a fourth grader, she placed in the top ten in regionals. She competed at the regional level during her fifth grade year. In sixth grade, she placed second at regionals.

Shetty has had her nose in the dictionary to prepare for the competition.

“The Merriam Webster dictionary has like about 470,000 entries, I’m pretty sure. So, it is definitely overwhelming,” she says.

That is not all she has to know. Participants must be familiar with definitions and homophones – words pronounced the same but they have different meanings.

“It’s imperative that we learn both the spelling and the meaning,” says Shetty.

She says her favorite teacher is Alisha Long. Long, an English teacher, has also coordinated the school’s spelling bee for about the past decade. Long says Shetty is quite the go-getter.

“She’s one of the most well-rounded, brilliant kids I have ever had. It’s just been so fun to watch her succeed in this arena,” says Long. “I think that she can compete very well. What I love about her is that I think that some kids spend a primary focus on the spelling bee and that’s not how her world works. She works very hard at everything she does. But like I said, she does a lot of other things. And so, I think that gives her a very good shot.”

Due to the pandemic, Columbia Public Schools held virtual learning until January. Long says she did not want the pandemic to force Shetty to miss the opportunity to go to nationals two years in a row. So, Long worked out all the logistics to make a school competition happen.

“She’s exceptionally well-rounded. To me, going is more of an accomplishment than most of us will ever do. Winning would be great, but at the same time I just celebrate everything that she does when she goes. It doesn’t matter to me win or lose. She’s amazing,” says Long.

The National Spelling Bee began in 1925 when nine newspapers came together to host a spelling bee. Their literacy effort helps 11 million students each year.

“There are kids that have talents that I don’t think we spend enough time celebrating – the academic side of talent. Not that it’s a negative thing that sports get celebrated, but I think that it’s really important that you also give kids that have those unique academic abilities their place to shine too. So, that’s why it’s been an important thing to me for the last ten years,” says Long.

Other Missouri spellers competing this year are from Trenton, Rolla, Poplar Bluff, Peculiar, Park Hill, Independence and St. Louis.

The quarterfinals are scheduled for June 15. The semifinals are June 27 and the in-person finals are July 8 at Walt Disney World.

Missouri has had four national spelling bee champions, all of which have been from the St. Louis area. Sandra Sloss was Missouri’s first champion – in 1955. Michael Day shared the 1962 title with a speller from Texas. George Thampy was the champion in 2000. The last Missourian to hold the title was in 2015 when 14-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield shared the honor with 13-year old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas.

To hear the full interviews with Shetty and Long, click below.

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