US – How many of us know where “Cochabamba” is, or what “conurbation” means? This 11-year-old did, when asked: “The urban area of Cochabamba has been in the news in recent years due to protests over the privatisation of the municipal water supply and regional autonomy issues. Cochabamba is the third largest conurbation in what country?”
Akshay Rajagopal promptly replied: “Bolivia.”
Thus, on May 21, he took top honours at the 2008 National Geographic Bee in the United States. He won the $25,000 prize money and a lifetime membership of the National Geographic Society. The sixth grader in a public school here in Nebraska, is the son of two Indian citizens originally from Bangalore, who have been in the U.S. for about 15 years.
This was Akshay’s first attempt at Geography Bee. His mother Suchitra Sreenivasan noticed his interest in geography and entered him in a school-level competition in January. Then he beat roughly 900 students and took the qualifying test to appear at the State level. He sailed through the two final rounds without ever erring. He looked relaxed through the preliminary rounds, answering questions with poise and confidence.
Serious preparation started after the school-level victory.
His interest in geography goes back to when he was about five and lived in Malaysia. His mother says: “He realised that he could quickly memorise the names of capitals of all the U.S. States and world capitals. This fed his curiosity to learn more about the world. He used to spend a lot of time looking at atlases and maps.”
His father Vijay Rajagopal says: “As parents, we were sometimes at a loss as to how to help him prepare for the State championship or find a mentor…” His mother spent much time with him from the beginning, even as the father’s job often took him away to East Asia.
Mr. Rajagopal says: “I started making digital tapes from the “Lands and Peoples Series” so he could listen to the tapes and learn as much as possible about the world.” The parents think the answer to the clincher on Cochabamba was in one of the tapes.
Akshay has been exposed to different countries and cultures. When asked how he knows so much, he says: “I like to know about the world.” Modest about his feat, he told Alex Trebeck, the host of the show: “I got lucky with some of the questions.”