Indian American students win first and third place at National Geographic Bee

2017 National Geographic Bee Champion Pranay Varada of Texas (right) and second-place finisher Thomas Wright of Wisconsin congratulate each other while on stage with Bee moderator Mo Rocca at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 17.


It was touch and go till the very end until Pranay Varada of Irving, Texas, a 14-year-old at DeWitt Perry Middle School, clinched the answer to become the 2017 champion at the 29th annual National Geographic Bee held May 17, at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

During an intense six-question tiebreaker round to determine the champion, 14-year-old Thomas Wright of Mequon, Wisconsin, an eighth-grader at University School of Milwaukee, took the lead, only to be challenged by Varada. Each Bee contestant is given one opportunity to challenge the answer to be determined by the judges. The question was “Mu Gia Pass, a strategic pass and a key point of entry to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, lies in what mountain range?” The judges decided to accept both answers: Annam and Annamite.

The sixth and final question, which clinched the win for Varada was: “What large mountain system that stretches more than 1,200 miles separates the Taklimakan Desert from the Tibetan Plateau?” Answer: “Kunlun Mountains”

“The last question was not difficult for me,” Varada told News India Times. But it was the end of a five-year journey, his mother Vasuki R. Kodaganti, said in a phone interview from the Washington, D.C. hotel where they were passing time before leaving for home in Texas the evening after the momentous win.

Varada feat carries even more weight knowing that almost 3 million students in 10,000 schools in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. Atlantic and Pacific territories and Department of Defense Dependents Schools took part in the 2017 National Geographic Bee. Getting through the state-level Geography Bee was even tougher, with 69 rounds. “But it was a do-or-die situation since he is in 8th Grade and his last chance,” Kodaganti said. “And we are really happy and proud. He worked really hard, planned things, knew his weaker areas, and covered the loopholes.”

In addition to earning the title, Varada received a $50,000 college scholarship and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society. Varada will also travel (along with one parent or guardian), all expenses paid, on a Lindblad expedition to the Galápagos Islands aboard the new National Geographic Endeavour ll. Travel for the trip is provided by Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic.

Varada grew up watching the National Geographic Bee, which he said stoked his interest in Geography. But he excels in more than just the names of obscure mountain passes or bridges and isthmuses. Varada began learning the piano at the age of 4, and began composing when he was 5. Several of his compositions are on YouTube. Now he has time to go back to music, he told News India Times. In his future, he says he will “probably do something in Math or Science.” But for now – “I will do music related things. Music is my passion,” said the 14-year old.

The third place in the Bee was also won by an Indian-American – Veda Bhattaram of Pine Brook, New Jersey, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Robert R. Lazar Middle School.

2017 National Geographic Bee Champion Pranay Varada, 14, of Texas celebrates his win with his family at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 17. (Photo: National Geographic Bee)

Second- and third-place finishers receive $25,000 and $10,000 college scholarships, respectively.Indian-Americans have dominated the National Geographic Bee just as they have the National Spelling Bee. Last year Rishi Nair of Seffner, Florida, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Williams Magnet Middle School, took top honors.

Fifty-four state and territory winners took part in the preliminary rounds of the 2017 National Geographic Bee on Monday, May 15. The top 10 finishers in the preliminary rounds met for the final round, which was moderated by humorist, journalist and actor Mo Rocca.

Standing with National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary E. Knell, Champion of this year’s competition, Pranay Varada of Texas (left); Veda Bhattaram of New Jersey (center) finished third; and Thomas Wright of Wisconsin (right) clinched second place. (Photo: National Geographic Bee)

Several South Asian Americans were among the seven other finalists, who each won $500: Nicholas Monahan of McCall, Idaho; Anish Susarla of Leesburg, Virginia; Lucas Eggers of Rochester, Minnesota; Rohan Kanchana of Hockessin, Delaware; Max Garon of the District of Columbia; Ahilan Eraniyan of San Ramon, California; and Abhinav Govindaraju of Bedford, New Hampshire.

“The National Geographic Bee shines a unique and fun light on geography and its importance to every one of us,” Gary E. Knell, president and CEO, National Geographic Society is quoted saying in the press release. “I congratulate all of the 2017 National Geographic Bee participants and thank their parents and teachers for the encouragement they provided along the way.”

The winner’s father Varada Praveen Rao couldn’t agree more on the role parents play. “His sister Vrinda who is in the 7th Grade and my wife, helped him prepare, quizzing him and working with the maps etc. They worked together. It’s a collective effort,” he told News India Times. He praised his son for keeping his grades up and meeting his school assignments through the gruelling schedule of preparing for the Bee. “He knows how to prioritize. He told us what he needed and we supported him. He sacrificed many birthday parties,” Rao said.



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