Telling her story, one slice of cake at a time: TEDx student speaker Natalie Rowland ’21 talks baking cakes, handling rejection

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Natalie Rowland '21 was selected as the student speaker at the College's annual TEDx conference. There, she spoke about her former cake baking adventure. COURTESY PHOTO / NATALIE ROWLAND

For the first time ever, the College of William and Mary partnered with TEDx to sponsor a student speaker March 25, 2018. Natalie Rowland ’21 was selected from a slew of competing students at an audition. She spoke about her experience baking a cake to celebrate the birthday of every single student in her high school graduating class.

‘I had this overwhelming feeling that this was something I had to do’

Throughout her first three years of high school, Rowland would occasionally bake cakes for her close friends’ birthdays. However, the summer before her senior year she decided that in the coming academic year she would bake every single member of her 320-person class a cake on their birthday. Rowland said that she felt this big power overcome her and she knew she had to do it.

Rowland said that many people thought she simply liked baking, or that she was looking for attention. But this wasn’t about baking or making a name for herself — even though she did end up winning prom queen. Rowland wanted to get to know all of the people in her graduating class before they left high school together for the last time.

To accomplish this, she would ask the birthday person to tell her three things in the days approaching their birthday: whether they preferred chocolate or vanilla for the cake flavor, what their favorite color was for the icing and to tell her a story.

Through these stories Rowland learned about her classmates. Some of her peers misunderstood the purpose of the project and told her surface-level stories about their love for music or animals. However, with other classmates she was able to talk deeply about their lives. Rowland based the decoration of the cake on the story that her classmate told her.

“My favorite one is this one kid named Hunter,” Rowland said. “We were kind of friends before and he FaceTimed me while I made his cake. We were FaceTiming for hours and he was telling me so many stories from his life. And then his mom came in and she told me a story about him. … Then my mom came in and told a story about me to Hunter and his mom.”

Rowland said that her cakes made the school days more interesting and exciting. She would enlist her little brother and friends to help transport the cakes to school and on paper plates through the hallways. There were days where she had to make multiple cakes, up to seven at a time. She was surprised that she only ever dropped one cake, and her dog stepped on two.

In order to deliver the cakes, Rowland would often interrupt class to bring people their cakes. However, the teachers were extremely accommodating. Rowland also sang happy birthday to every single person when she brought them their cake, a process that she found terrifying but rewarding.

“My school became this place of daily celebration. Like a party that everyone was invited to.”

“My school became this place of daily celebration,” Rowland said. “Like a party that everyone was invited to.”

During the process of making these cakes, Rowland said that she felt the importance of creating something physical that would be eaten and enjoyed and never come back. She said that while she doesn’t remember making each cake specifically, they are all documented on the Instagram she made for the project, @natmakescakes.

Rowland said that creating is important to her. While putting so much effort into making these cakes beautiful and personal could be difficult and trying at times, each cake taught her something.

“It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done,” Rowland said. “Cakes taught me so much more about the whole world than I ever thought anything could teach me.”

‘All their stories became my favorite story’

While Rowland said she is retired from cake-making — for the time being at least — she is incredibly proud of this year-long escapade and wanted to share it with the world. That is why she decided to audition for the TEDx conference. At first she was apprehensive and did not think that she would be able to do it. However, her love of TED Talks and her desire to share this story shone through and in the end,  she decided to audition.

Many of the other students who auditioned to be the student speaker had experience with debate or public speaking. Rowland plays music and has performed in theater, however she said that she would not call public speaking her forte. She said that she had her talk memorized and would be practicing every second leading up to the conference.

“I don’t know how to be a speaker. I just know how to tell my story.”

“I don’t know how to be a speaker,” Rowland said. “I just know how to tell my story.”

Listening to the other auditions, Rowland was really scared. She said they were all such good speakers, which was intimidating for her. However, she ended up securing the student speaker position and giving her talk, titled “320 Cakes: The Existential Escapade,” to a sold-out crowd at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.

Rowland is from Los Angeles, California, so her parents were not able to attend. However, her mother tweeted about it and notified her daughter’s old high school. Many of Rowland’s friends sat in the overflow room where a screen broadcast her talk, as they were unable to get seats.

Rowland spoke last, which she said both intimidated her and felt like an honor.

‘It’s been a long winter’

During high school Rowland was not sure that college would be the best path for her. Her father had attended the College and she wanted to follow in his footsteps when she was younger but vacillated on that idea as she neared graduation. Only during her senior year did she happen to pass through Williamsburg during a trip to her cousin’s wedding. She decided to take a tour and found a number of signs that pointed toward the College as the place she was supposed to be.

“There were all these little universe clues, these happenstance coincidental things,” Rowland said.

From the willow trees — her favorite tree — outside James Blair Hall, to the lore around the Crim Dell bridge that seemed eerily similar to her own personal superstition about crossing bridges, the coincidences kept piling up.

“It just seemed like a really nice place that I was supposed to go to,” Rowland said. “So I applied early decision and it was this complete turnaround.”

Yet, moving all the way across the country took a toll on Rowland. Because she wants to move back to California after graduation and live there the rest of her life, Rowland made the decision to not travel home for shorter breaks, and instead experience life on the East Coast. Adjusting to the culture and weather of a new state, Rowland said, has been extremely difficult, and she often misses her family and hometown friends.

“The very first couple weeks of school I cried to my mom every single day, like, ‘I’m not going to make any friends, this is horrible’.”

“The very first couple weeks of school I cried to my mom every single day, like, ‘I’m not going to make any friends, this is horrible,’” Rowland said.

During her first two semesters at the College, Rowland said she hit roadblock after roadblock. She applied to be on the staff of ROCKET Magazine and did not get in. She auditioned for an a cappella group and did not get a callback. She applied to be an Orientation Aide and was rejected. She auditioned for theater shows and was not called back. In her first semester she joined a social sorority but then decided to deactivate because she did not feel that it was the right place for her.

However, Rowland has maintained a determination to follow her passions throughout it all. This spring she joined Alma Mater Productions and sang and played her ukulele at a Homebrew. She was also invited to join a group called Creative Individuals as a result of her securing the student speaker spot at TEDx.

“Everything is kind of falling into place,” Rowland said.

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