It’s been quite a week for 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde. Last Thursday, she became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. That weekend, she made an appearance at the ESPY Awards, where she stole the show, and on Wednesday, she made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live where she demonstrated not only her spelling skills, but also her basketball skills.
Now this week, the spunky teenager has received no less than three full-ride scholarship offers to college. As a Lousiana native, Zaila’s home is Harvey, LA, so far it’s just Louisiana Universities vying for the teen, but others could be expected to follow suit.
Southern University became the third and most recent Louisiana institution to offer a full-ride scholarship to the talented student. In a tweet Saturday evening, Southern University President Ray L. Belton announced that, in addition to a scholarship, he would institute a “Zaila Day” at the institution.
Belton’s bid for young Zaila to attend his university comes after LSU President William Tate offered the teen a scholarship.
Louisiana Community and Technical College System became the first academic institution to offer Zaila a scholarship to attend any community and technical college in the state.
While Zaila is most likely humbled by the offers, she has gone on the record saying she was interested in attending Harvard University.
Zaila is also a basketball prodigy who owns three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously and hopes to one day play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA. She described spelling as a side hobby, even though she routinely practiced for seven hours a day.
“I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it,” Zaila said. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there, and walk off.”
Many of top Scripps spellers start competing as young as kindergarten. Zaila only started a few years ago, after her father, Jawara Spacetime, watched the bee on TV and realized his daughter’s affinity for doing complicated math in her head could translate well to spelling. She progressed quickly enough to make it to nationals in 2019 but bowed out in the preliminary rounds.
That’s when she started to take it more seriously and began working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and the 2015 Scripps runner-up.
“Usually to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years,” Shafer-Ray said. “It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?’”
Shafer-Ray quickly realized his pupil had extraordinary gifts.
“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim,” he said. “She knew, not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”
Sometimes she knew more than she let on. Part of her strategy, she said, was to ask about roots that weren’t part of the word she was given, just to eliminate them from consideration.
Only one word gave her trouble: “nepeta,” a genus of mints, and she jumped even higher when she got that one right than she did when she took the trophy.
“I’ve always struggled with that word. I’ve heard it a lot of times. I don’t know, there’s just some words, for a speller, I just get them and I can’t get them right,” she said. “I even knew it was a genus of plants. I know what you are and I can’t get you.”
Zaila — her dad gave her the last name Avant-garde in tribute to jazz musician John Coltrane — is a singular champion of a most unusual bee, the first in more than 25 months. Last year’s bee was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and this one was thoroughly modified to minimize risk to kids and their families.
Most of the bee was held virtually, and only the 11 finalists got to compete in person, in a small portion of a cavernous arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida that also hosted the NBA playoff bubble last year. The in-person crowd was limited to spellers’ immediate family, Scripps staff, selected media — and first lady Jill Biden, who spoke to the spellers and stayed to watch.