Uma Upamaka’s Success In Spelling

Freshman Uma Upamaka has been spelling competitively for years and has ranked nationally in spelling bees across the country


By Rebekah Maye, North Star Staffer

Her name is called, breaking the silence on the quiet stage, and she stands up, number 132 swaying around her neck. A judge sitting before her assigns her a word more complicated than the last, and she thinks about it carefully before saying each letter. She spells it correctly, to the relief of the anticipating audience and judges, and advances to the next round.

“There’s really nothing like it,” Uma Upamaka said. “People play sports to get their hearts pumping, and there’s nothing like that adrenaline rush when you get a word that you don’t know. It’s sort of like sports except for people who can’t play sports.”

Uma began competing in spelling bees in second grade. Since then, she has placed second at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Spelling Bee in 2016 and 11th in the MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee Nationals in New York in 2015. She has competed in 10-12 competitions since she started and plans on competing in the HOSA Medical Spelling Bee on March 27. To prepare for spelling bees, Uma practices with her mother, studying the roots of words and their spelling patterns.

“Uma showed a lot of interest in reading,” Uma’s mother, Archana Upamaka, said. “She showed a lot of interest in spelling and what words meant, and when she got into spelling competitions, it was very critical to understand the etymology of the words.”

Uma’s success is not only credited to years of practicing words and how to spell them, but also to her proficiency in etymology. Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. While it is impossible to memorize the spelling of over 476,000 words in the Merriam Webster Third New Unabridged Dictionary, the dictionary Uma uses to study for competitions, learning their roots and origins will help a contestant advance to the next round.

“I think spelling is a skill that you just need to learn how to do, as it takes a lot of practice,” Uma said. “There are so many words out there and lots of weird exceptions because English doesn’t usually like to behave.”

With this unique skill, Uma plans to go into the field of medicine, as knowing the roots and origins of foreign terms will help her advance in her studies.

“Spelling has been a part of my life for a very long time, and while it’s not a part of me, it is a part of who I am,” Uma said. “I enjoy words, and that composes part of my personality.”