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Young MTSU student returns to National Spelling Bee for speech

MTSU’s youngest current student has been invited to help make a welcoming speech at this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.

MTSU sophomore Benjamin Kulas, 15, is shown with some of the his numerous spelling bee and other awards before leaving to speak May 23 at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Kulas, who competed at the national bee in 2011 and 2014, began college at age 14 in August 2015. (MTSU photos by Randy Weiler)

MTSU sophomore Benjamin Kulas, 15, is shown with some of the his numerous spelling bee and other awards before leaving to speak May 23 at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Kulas, who competed at the national bee in 2011 and 2014, began college at age 14 in August 2015. (MTSU photos by Randy Weiler)

Benjamin Kulas, 15, a sophomore physics major from Murfreesboro who advanced to the 2014 national bee semifinals and was eliminated in the 2011 preliminary round, received an invitation from director Paige Kimble to speak at this year’s bee.

She and a colleague had heard him speak at the Tennessee Titans Regional Spelling Bee in March.

Kulas and another past participant took turns reading a script, written by officials with the National Spelling Bee, during the May 23 welcome event in the Maryland Ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.

This year, 285 spellers — 144 boys and 141 girls — from across the United States and other countries will compete for the title of National Spelling Bee champion.

The purpose of the bee is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage to use throughout their lives. ESPN networks will air spelling bee preliminary and final rounds live.

“Oh, not very long,” Kulas said when asked how long it took to accept Kimble’s offer. “About as long as it took to write an email reply.

“I’m honored. I didn’t really expect it, but I’m very happy about it. … It’s mainly intended for the spellers, and it gives me a chance to go back to the bee, if only for a day. It will be a reunion as well as a speaking opportunity.”

Kulas calls the National Spelling Bee “a test of might and a test of knowledge and endurance, and you happen to be doing it with other people.”

“It is very tough,” Kulas said of the national competition. “There’s a lot of studying for serious spellers. The ones who truly want to win are very dedicated. Some study as much as eight hours a day.”

National Spelling Bee logoKulas entered MTSU at age 14 as a Buchanan Fellow, selected by the Honors College to receive one of the 20 full scholarships awarded every year to the top scholars. Funds for the scholarships come from money given to the university by the late James M. Buchanan, the Nobel Prize-winning alumnus.

His parents, Diana and Jeff Kulas, moved to Murfreesboro so their son could be close to campus. Benjamin Kulas, who was home-schooled, also earned hours in dual-enrollment classes at Nashville State Community College and passed CLEP tests. His freshman year was “stressful at times, but, overall, a great experience,” he said.

Benjamin Kulas, 15, an MTSU sophomore physics major and Honors College Buchanan Scholar from Murfreesboro, displays the speech that earned him an invitation to the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., May 23.

Benjamin Kulas, 15, an MTSU sophomore physics major and Honors College Buchanan Scholar from Murfreesboro, displays the speech that earned him an invitation to the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., May 23.

“The Buchanan Fellowship helped me make a great group of friends,” he added. “The social aspect doesn’t come easily to me, but it was not as hard as I expected. I have a 4.0 (GPA) right now, but that can change.

“Spring semester was touch and go, academically. Probably the hardest part has been the writing. I have not had the chance to do thorough, serious writing until college.”

Among that serious writing he’s crafted are the 19 papers he wrote this spring during his 15 hours of courses. Most were in an introduction to philosophy class, one he took with other Buchanan scholars, and a foreign literature and translation class.

Though he’s at least four years younger than his peers, he said he he fit in with classmates.

“My friends all tend to be a little older than I am,” said Kulas, who is minoring in computer science and mathematics.

“They don’t tease me, but they will make a joke sometimes. Plenty of faculty and other students think I’m a younger-looking 17- or 18-year-old.”

In physics, Kulas earned year-end recognition as the first-year student with the most academic promise, as well as a physics alumni scholarship and his election as Society of Physics Students treasurer for 2016-17.

Kulas, whose hobbies are reading, programming and playing video games, also is among the Honors College students assisting senior citizens with technology problems at Adams Place. His older brother, Sean McKitrick, also attended MTSU.

In 1998, then-14-year-old Michael Kearney earned his master’s degree in chemistry from MTSU. He returned to MTSU as a graduate teaching assistant while working toward, and ultimately earning, his doctorate in chemistry at Vanderbilt.

— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)