Indian-American Teen Pranay Varada Wins 2017 National Geographic Bee

2017 National Geographic Bee Champion Pranay Varada, 14, in eighth grade at Dewitt Perry Middle School, Carrollton, Texas

In second place is Thomas Wright and third place finisher is Veda Bhattaram of Indian origin

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, May 17, 2017 – For the sixth consecutive year, the winner of the prestigious National Geographic Bee is an Indian-American kid: Pranay Varada, 14, of Texas.

In second place is Thomas Wright of Wisconsin and the third place finisher is Veda Bhattaram of New Jersey and, like Pranay, of Indian origin. The winners were awarded one of three college scholarships totaling 85,000 dollars at the end of a nail-biting, nerve-wracking, yet engrossing and ever so thrilling competition held at the National Geographic headquarters in the nation’s capital.

Pranay bagged the top award of 50,000 dollars, the title of National Geographic Bee Champion, a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society including a subscription to the National Geographic magazine, and an all-expenses-paid expedition to the Galapago Islands aboard the new National Geographic Endeavour II.

Thomas and Veda received 25,000 dollars and 10,000 dollars, respectively. Following the preliminary round which was held on Monday morning, each of the top ten winners were awarded 500 dollars.

A tense moment from the 2017 National Geographic Bee. Seen from left to right are the top three contestants Veda Bhattaram, Thomas Wright, Pranay Varada, with moderator Mo Rocca

In the national championship round, the sixth and final question which propelled Pranay to the top was: ‘What large mountain system that stretches more than 1,200 miles separates the Taklimakan Desert from the Tibetan Plateau’. His winning answer: ‘Kunlun Mountains’.

Pranay, who is in eighth grade at DeWitt Perry Middle School, was composed throughout the event — the last time he was eligible to take part in the competition. At a crucial point, he folded his hands as in prayer. Even after being crowned the winner, he was almost stoic-like in his demeanor which is not to say he wasn’t thrilled. During the contest he told moderator Mo Rocca that if he wins, it will be the happiest day of his life.

Understandably so for a kid who poured over the atlas ever since he was four years old. To reach the 2017 national championship level, he went through 56 grueling rounds before being declared the winner of his state bee.

“The Texas Bee really prepared me for the national competition because there are so many well prepared contestants in Texas which is the second most populous state in the US”, Pranay informed us. He has been competing in the Geographic Bee for five years and finished in sixth place at the national level, last year. His is a case of working hard, and he persisted!

It is noteworthy that the original pool of Geography Bee participants comprised 2.6 million students from more than 10,000 schools in all 50 US states, the District of Columbia, Union Territories and Department of Defense Dependents Schools. A total of 54 state bee winners, 21 of Indian origin, who participated in the preliminary were selected from a pool of over 4,600 students in grades four through eight. The figures are staggering when one considers that out of this original pool of millions, only ten advanced to the Championship round and 60 percent of the finalists were of Indian origin in a country where Indian-Americans comprise one percent of the population.

Pranay Varada’s family interacting with the media after he is crowned the 2017 National Geographic Bee Champion. From right to left are his sister Vrinda, father Praveen Rao and mother Vasuki Kodaganti

We queried Pranay’s parents, who migrated from India in the late 1990s, about the dominance of Indian-origin kids in the competition. His father Praveen Rao, originally from Bangalore, replied, “I think it is because the parents are more involved with the kids based on where I work and what I’ve seen. They know what their kids are studying at school. They know what homework they have and they make sure they have some goals and follow them. That is what makes a big difference”.

Elated and emotional about Pranay’s win, his mother, Vasuki Kodaganti who hails from Hyderabad, believed, “We (Indian-Americans) are more focused and more sincere to our beliefs that pushes us to work hard. We don’t get distracted in many ways. I don’t try to channel my kids in different directions. Then, you lose focus and you are like a jack of all trades, master of none”, she said.

Pranay was completely focused on the geography competition and in his spare time, we learned, he plays the piano and cello and even composes music.

Pranay Varada and Thomas Wright get ready to face off in the final round of the 29th annual National Geographic Bee held at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC

The competition, also known as the Nat Geo Bee, is an annual geography contest open to students ages 10 to 14, organized by the National Geographic Society. It is tough and challenging, but also entertaining and very impressive! The aim is to inspire and reward children for their knowledge and curiosity about the world.

“The National Geographic Bee shines a unique and fun light on geography and its importance to every one of us”, said Gary Knell, President and CEO of the National Geographic Society. “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 competition has been held every year since 1989 and in recent times, Indian-American kids have been crowned winners.

Rishi Nair, 12, of Florida won the 2016 National Geographic Bee; second and third place winners were Saketh Jonnalagadda, 14, of Massachusetts, and Kapil Nathan, 12, of Alabama, respectively.

Among other recent National Champions are Karan Menon of New Jersey (2015), Akhil Rekulapelli of Virginia (2014), Sathwik Karnik of Massachusetts (2013) and Rahul Nagvekar of Texas (2012).

The ten finalists who competed in the 2017 National Spelling Bee were: Ahilan Eraniyan, in sixth grade at Diablo Vista Middle School, Danville, California; Rohan Kanchana, in eighth grade at Newark Charter School, Delaware; Abhinav Govindaraju, in seventh grade at Ross A Lurgio Middle School, Bedford, New Hampshire; Anish Susarla, in sixth grade at Belmont Ridge Middle School, Leesburg, Virginia; Max Garon, in seventh grade at Sidwell Friends Middle School, District of Columbia; Nicholas Monahan, in eighth grade at Payette Lakes Middle School, McCall, Idaho; Lucas Eggers, in eighth grade at STAR Homeschool Academy, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Veda, in seventh grade at Robert R Lazar Middle School, Montville; Thomas, in eighth grade at University School of Milwaukee; and Pranay.

The ten finalists in the 2017 National Geographic Bee

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