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Our American Dream: From Broken English to Spelling Bee Champ

Across the United States, in all fields of endeavor, Latinos are working to uphold their place in American society. Fox News Latino is proud to present "Our American Dream" – a series of snapshots and profiles of Latino success stories.

Three years ago Nicole Petry would have found it hard to believe that she was qualifying for the regional spelling bee in Fort Worth, Tex. When she and her mother immigrated to the United States, she only knew a handful of English phrases; so going to school was a daily struggle.

Petry, 12, recalls one of the first times she spoke up in the 4th grade.

“One day [my teacher] asked me a question. I didn’t say anything but “meow,” she said.

She didn’t want to attempt to speak in her broken English.

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Before moving to the Fort Worth area with her mom at the age of 9, Petry grew up speaking Portuguese and some Spanish. She and her mother lived in Novo Hamburgo, Brazil. Her mother, Nadja Smith, married an American.

“Learning the English language was much harder than we expected,” said Smith.

Petry’s class was made up of other students learning the English language at George C. Clark Elementary. Over the next year, she made significant progress and became more proficient with English.

She heard about the school spelling bee during her first year of school in the U.S., but it scared her.

“It looked so hard, so I didn’t want to apply,” she told Fox News Latino.

Another year went by and her confidence was up, plus she wanted to fit in with the other students.

“I felt so disconnected, so I thought I’d give it a try.” As a fifth grader, she won the school competition.

A year later—she went for it again, and won the Fort Worth school district.

“I can’t lie—I really want that trophy,” she said.

She’s getting close. At the school district competition she succeeded through 15 different rounds, spelling words such as: “curmudgeon,” “mauve,” “polypeptide,” among others.

Now she’s going onto the regional championship at Texas Christian University, competing on March 29th. If she wins that, she’s on to the national spelling bee held at Scripps University in June.

Petry attends McLean 6th Grade Center. Every night she practices words given to her by her school librarian, Lisa Heick who coordinates the school’s spelling bee.

Heick says she’s in awe with Petry’s progress.

“A lot of kids who have been doing this have been doing this their entire lives,” said Heick.

She said Petry works extra hard, always stopping by the library to get more study guides. She says it’s not only helping her become stronger at the English language, it’s building up her confidence.

“She used to get nervous in front of audiences,” said Heick.

“She’s coming out of her shell more and more, and I think this is really helping her with that,” Heick added.

Petry said every night her mother quizzes her from several different lists. She has no secret to learning the words, just repetition—sometimes while she knits.

“I like to review the words, my mom pronounces them to me, and I practice spelling them to her.”

Smith said this has helped gain her understanding of the English language too.

“Sometimes she makes me pronounce the right way before she starts to spell it.”

“She’s teaching me while I try to teach her,” she added.

Smith is proud of her daughter, and said this will make her a better writer and speaker.

Right now, Petry said she’s studying French words.

Petry said becoming a better speller has made her a stronger writer, and more ready for college. She recommends other children moving to the United States to do the same.

“It will get you better grades. It will help with your English if you aren’t from here,” she added.

She dreams of attending medical school to become a forensic anthropologist, but not before earning a winning trophy at the national spelling bee.

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Patrick Manning is a junior reporter  based in El Paso, Texas for foxnews.com.

Patrick Manning is part of the Junior Reporter program at Fox News. Get more information on the program here.