Senior Spotlight: Grace Walters spells her way through Rice and beyond
In 2019, the Scripps National Spelling Bee saw an unprecedented eight-way tie after the competition ran out of words. The person partially responsible for three of those eight wins was spelling bee coach Grace Walters. Walters, a Jones College senior, has coached two other spelling bee champions, including last year’s winner, Harini Logan.
Walters is finishing her double major in linguistics and Asian studies. Her passion for linguistics is rooted in her childhood experiences competing in spelling bees, long before she matriculated at Rice.
“I learned about [linguistics] when I did spelling [bees] as a kid — it is my favorite thing ever,” Walters said. “I loved to compete as a kid. I loved just flipping through the dictionary, learning new words, what they meant and their etymologies.”
After competing in spelling bees, Walters said she began spelling bee coaching for middle schoolers nationwide as she wanted to continue teaching about language.
“There are words that mean just about everything, so in doing spelling [bees], studying these words in preparation, you learn a little bit about every part of the world you can imagine,” she said. “Seeing my students really take an interest and find passion in learning, not only about words and language but also about the world at large, is so much fun.”
According to Walters, studying linguistics has always been a clear decision for her.
“I figured out that linguistics was a thing, and I was like, 'Wait — you mean I could spend the rest of my life studying language?' and that just thrilled me,” Walters said.
Walters is currently working on her senior thesis, which meshes both linguistics and Asian studies. Her research aims to understand the social factors underlying a shift in a specific sound change rule in Kannada, one of the Dravidian languages spoken in southern India.
“I think the reason why the Dravidian languages are so close to my heart is because of the people in the spelling bee community. There's a large overlap between the South Asian diaspora and that community,” Walters said. “I feel like there's not enough talk about the linguistic diversity and situation in India.”
Walters hopes to continue her study of the Dravidian languages in graduate school with the long-term goal of becoming a linguistics professor. She plans on taking a gap year before graduate school, and as a semi-finalist for the Fulbright Program, an international merit-based grant program, she hopes to spend her gap year teaching English abroad in India.
“Teaching is one of my passions. I've been doing spelling bee coaching, mentoring students competing in the [same] competitions that sparked my love for language, since I was 13,” Walters said. “I get paid to talk about language and linguistics — it's just the best job in the world … teaching is something that really sets my heart on fire.”
With post-graduation plans on the horizon, Walters looks back on her time at Rice as a challenging yet valuable experience, especially during her sophomore and junior years which were impacted by the pandemic.
“Those years really forced me to turn inward and evaluate what sort of lifestyle I want to lead, especially because I think that I was caught up a lot in Rice's whole cult of busy-ness,” Walters said. “I learned that it is so important to prioritize yourself and to fill your own cup first so that you can then pour [it] into other people.”
While she said that she’s unsure if she will continue spelling bee coaching in the coming years, Walters looks back fondly on her years teaching and mentoring her students, and she hopes to one day write a book for spelling bee competitors.
“The spelling bee community is who I have to thank for where I am today. The fact that I’m at Rice, the fact that I’m studying linguistics, the fact that I have this thesis going on studying a Dravidian language — I am here because of the relationships and the love that the spelling bee community has shown me,” Walters said. “And even if I'm not coaching, I will definitely be finding ways to give back to them in the future.”
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