How a Fairfax Co. middle schooler helped plan a spelling bee for Mongolian American students at World Bank

When he was a third grade student in Fairfax County, Virginia, Erdem Dulguun noticed spelling bee posters displayed across the school.

The flyers had large bees on them, and because Dulguun loves honey, he thought students would spend time experimenting with bees and making honey. When he showed up to a meeting, though, he immediately recognized the posters had nothing to do about honey and were focused on preparing for a spelling bee.

Erdem Dulguun and his mom, Bolormaa Jamiyansuren. (Courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools)

He stuck it out, winning the spelling bee at the elementary school level, which spearheaded his interest in spelling competitions. As a sixth-grader at Westbriar Elementary, Dulguun was the first runner up in the 2021 Fairfax County Spelling Bee and was the area’s alternate to attend the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Now, he helped plan the first Scripps-supported spelling bee for American Mongolian immigrant children across the U.S., scheduled for Saturday at The World Bank in D.C.

Batbayar Ulziidelger, the Mongolian Ambassador to the U.S., is expected to attend.

“I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve managed to host the first ever community spelling bee for a specific race,” Dulguun said.

Dulguun was born in the U.S., but lived with his grandparents in Mongolia until his mom finished graduate school. Mongolian was his first language, and when he came back for kindergarten, he attended a Chinese immersion school. He picked up English just by living in the U.S., he said, but the school did have an English class, so “I never really had trouble learning English.”

His mom, Bolormaa Jamiyansuren, posted about Dulguun’s success on Facebook, leaving many in Mongolian circles across the U.S. surprised that he was allowed to compete despite the fact English wasn’t his first language.

Over the last year and a half, Dulguun has spent hours preparing for weekly Zoom sessions with Mongolian immigrant children across the U.S. Sometimes, the sessions include spelling practice, during which he tries to observe which words get missed the most. French words and homophones were common mistakes, he said.

“It really showed them how important it was to use all the resources you have,” Dulguun said. “Instead of just hearing the word and then immediately trying to spell it, you have to ask for the definition to make sure or just confirm what you think it is.”

Many students asked Dulguun how they could participate in a spelling bee, so he advised them to sign up at school. But, he soon learned many of the students went to school in districts that didn’t have spelling bees and didn’t plan to introduce one.

“I had so much fun with the spelling bee, especially with winning, learning all of these new words and learning, basically, new languages,” Dulguun said. “I felt really strongly that I had to give these fellow students a chance, because otherwise, how are they going to show what they know?”

This weekend’s competition is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the World Bank, and will feature 34 participants from eight states. Students and their families will also stop by the Mongolian Embassy for a meet and greet on Friday.

“I don’t know how it happened,” Jamiyansuren said. “It’s a lot of concentrated effort but a lot of luck and good places, good schools, great people we just happen to run into that supported him.”

Kilmer Middle School Principal Amy Miller said Dulguun’s efforts are a great example of giving back.

“When I think about the impact Erdem is having on children in the Mongolian community, it’s huge and it’s really representative of what we really encourage students to do,” Miller said,

“Take your skills and your strengths and follow your passions for yourself, but also to impact the broader community.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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