DU Student Reflects on Childhood Geography Bee Wins
Isabella Contolini won the Colorado Geography Bee twice as a child, securing a full scholarship to DU
Whenever Isabella Contolini crossed paths with a new geography puzzle, she’d write it down in her notebook. In what country is the port of Basra? How do you pronounce Kiribati? Where do kiwi birds live?
It started with the movie “Akeelah and the Bee,” about a young girl taking on the national spelling competition. While poring over the dictionary bored Contolini, she had always felt at home exploring maps and so set her sights on the National Geographic Geography Bee.
“I’ve had a fascination with maps since I was really little, and learning more about the wide world I can’t see. My dad is from Italy and my youngest brother is adopted from Guatemala,” says Contolini, now a University of Denver student majoring in biological sciences with minors in chemistry and geography. “I enjoyed learning the names of new places and strange words and funny, crazy things that are out there in the world.”
By fourth grade, she was competing in the Colorado State GeoBee hosted annually at the University of Denver, where the grand prize was a half scholarship to DU. “The girl who won that year, it was her second year winning, so she got the full scholarship,” Contolini recalls. “I was like, ‘All right, this is my goal. I’m going to win this.’”
And she did. Twice. In both sixth and seventh grades, Contolini won the state geography bee, securing a full scholarship to DU. From there, she made her way to Washington, D.C., for the national competition, where she took 13th place her first year and 11th her second.
“It was a dream come true,” she says. “When all of my friends were applying to colleges and stressing out, it was never something I had to think about. In high school, it allowed me some time to just be a normal teenager, and now that I’m in college, to graduate debt-free is going to be a huge deal.”
Beyond the scholarship, and learning that the English language name for Rapa Nui is Easter Island, Contolini says the competition fostered a stronger relationship with her father and her faith. “Doing the bee together really cemented our relationship. When this was something I started to get excited about, [my dad] saw it as an opportunity to spend time together and do something we both really enjoy,” she says. “We integrated our faith a lot. We are Catholic … and we decided to start every study session with a prayer. We were looking at the bigger picture.”
And the bee fostered a love of traveling. In fact, Contolini takes a keepsake — a rock— from each place she visits and asks her friends to do the same. “I have one from the top of Mount Fuji in Japan; I have one from Antarctica; I have one from Bali in Indonesia; I have one from Mauritius,” she says. “When I get them from the really obscure places, that’s really exciting.”
Contolini collected her latest stowaways on a beach in Elgin, a coastal city in northern Scotland while studying abroad in Glasgow. Instead of carefully cataloging and labeling them with the rest of her collection, she keeps them close by. “They’ve been sitting in my pencil box, and it makes me happy to see them,” she says.
The rocks keep her motivated as she wades through biology coursework. While she considered majoring in geography, she ultimately chose a path to medicine. After graduating in 2020, she plans to take a gap year before continuing to medical school.
Even as she is future-focused, Contolini enjoys a look back. Each March, she volunteers at the state GeoBee, paying special attention to the few female participants. “Those days were fun, but also very intense and nerve-wracking. Now being on the other side of it, I feel like I’m able to give back a little bit,” she says. “The first year I went to nationals, I was the only girl out of all 54 of us. … So seeing the few girls at the bee, I’m always rooting for them.”
As she moves through her education and continues to travel (next stop: perhaps a jaunt to New Zealand to hang out with some kiwi birds) she says she’ll never lose sight of the importance of geography. “There’s such a lack of knowledge about the world,” Contolini says. “We tend to live most of our lives in this little bubble of our own neighborhood and our community. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to know we are not the only ones.”