Super spellers
Bee helps past winners succeed in academics

LAWRENCEVILLE - Asad Ladhani and John Raghu agree on this: Winning the Gwinnett County Spelling Bee provides motivation to succeed in other ventures.

Ladhani, 12, and Raghu, 15, both won the competition when they were in fifth grade. Raghu, the 2004 county champion, is now a sophomore at Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology. Ladhani, last year's winner, is preparing to compete Saturday in the 2009 Gwinnett County Spelling Bee.

Eighty Gwinnett County Public Schools students, who earned the title of top spelling champion at their local schools, will face off at the annual competition Saturday. The students from 60 elementary schools and 20 middle schools will participate in the written portion of the competition, and the top 12 spellers as determined during the written bee will compete in the oral bee about 10 a.m. in Central Gwinnett High's theater.

"It's a great way to enhance your vocabulary and help your writing skills," Ladhani, a sixth-grader at Lanier Middle, said of the spelling bee. "It gives you courage that ... if you put your mind to something, you can just do it."

Last year was Ladhani's first time competing in a spelling bee, and he said he didn't really know what to expect. This year, as a returning contender, he'll be familiar with the format of the competition. He said he's also beefed up the amount of time he has spent studying - about an hour on school days and four to five hours on days he's not in class.

During the summer of 2008, Ladhani participated in the State Farm South Asian Spelling Bee in Chicago, where he came in third. He said he "definitely" has aspirations to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

"(Winning the 2008 Gwinnett County Spelling Bee) encouraged me to do better, because I was a fifth-grader. I was almost the youngest one there," said Ladhani, a Suwanee resident. "I thought to myself if being at this age I can do this much, what will I be able to do when I get older?"

Because of his academic excellence, Ladhani was nominated in 2008 to Who's Who Among Students. For the past two years, he was a Student Ambassador, traveling to Scotland and England to learn about their governments.

Ladhani said his parents, Adil and Amynah, provide him with a lot of motivation and courage.

"They help me exceed to the next level," he said.

Raghu, a Lawrenceville resident, said winning the 2004 county bee was "one of the greatest experiences of my life."

"With a mix of nerves and (knowing that he was) representing my school, Parsons Elementary, it was the most pressure I've ever (faced) in my whole life," Raghu said. "To succeed was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

"Winning the spelling bee gave me more determination," he added. "When I won, it made me want to go (further and further). It got to the point where I was succeeding at lots more."

During his seventh-grade year, Raghu said he took the SAT, and his score of 1,580 qualified him for the Duke Talent Identification Program. As part of that program, he passed a disease transmission and immunology class. He was also invited to join the National Society of High School Scholars and participate in a Congressional Youth Leadership Council (CYIC) conference.

Being an alum of the CYIC, Raghu was invited to the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference in Washington, D.C. He leaves for the conference Friday, and he'll have the opportunity to meet people such as Colin Powell and Al Gore and witness President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in.

Raghu said the support of his parents, Mildeo and Winsome, has also been key to his success. He remembers how his mother would tell him to read the dictionary when he was preparing for the spelling bee.

"I honestly did not read the dictionary," he said. "My mom would quiz me on words, but I kept on trying to go play video games. She would tell me, 'You have the ability to win this. Now use it.' When I harnessed that, I kept studying and studying, and I won."

Although Raghu became interested in microbiology at a young age, he's passionate about music. He began playing the acoustic bass in sixth grade and taught himself electric bass the next year. This year, he developed an interest in guitar, and he's teaching himself how to play the instrument. He also plans to join the jazz band that is forming at his school, a charter school with a rigorous curriculum that focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Raghu speaks fondly of GSMST, which he describes as a family. He's especially complimentary of the "amazing" teachers, who he said are dedicated to their students' success. He credits his teachers with helping him identify his desire to work in the music industry. In college, he said he plans to major in music and minor in microbiology.

Raghu can't deny the impact of becoming a spelling bee champion. Winning the competition helped build his confidence, he said.

"I learned never to doubt myself, because there's always a possibility," Raghu said. "If you focus on that possibility, there's always a chance you will succeed."

SideBar: If you go

What: 2009 Gwinnett County Spelling Bee

When: The oral bee, which is open to the public, begins about 10 a.m.

Where: Central Gwinnett High School theater, 564 W. Crogan St., Lawrenceville