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Norwich - Natassia Carter's fondness for cakes can be traced to her early years when her mother would painstakingly make a themed cake from scratch for her birthday.
One year, it was Scooby Doo. Another year it was The Powerpuff Girls and another it was SpongeBob SquarePants.
"The cakes were so special to me," said Carter. "They brought so much joy. That's why I like baking cakes. To see the smiles on people's faces, their excitement makes me happy, plus they taste good."
Carter, 17, will graduate next month from Norwich Technical High School in the culinary arts trade. She will attend Johnson & Wales in Providence, where she plans to earn an associate's degree in bakery and pastry arts and then proceed to obtain her bachelor's degree in food service management.
After graduating college, Carter wants to open a bakery. The New London native is determined to be a success so she can help her parents, Cynthia and Dominic Sanderlin and her community.
"I would love to help my mother because she has helped me so much," said Carter. "She's my best friend."
Cynthia Sanderlin said she herself took up cake baking as a hobby, but soon noticed that her daughter developed an interest at an early age.
She said Carter is very visual, able to draw a cake on paper and then execute that design.
Sanderlin said that baking with her daughter, especially when Carter was younger, taught her how to be patient and now that Carter is older it has taught her to take a step back and allow her child to lead.
"She's very focused and has always showed an interest in baking," said Sanderlin. "She never wavered from that passion. She says she going to do it and she does. We're proud of her and can't wait to see what the future holds for her."
Carter said she needs to make a name for herself to show others that her hometown produces great kids and leaders.
"People think that New London is bad or think about it in terms of poverty, but there is a lot of good that you don't hear about," said Carter.
Every morning she wakes up at 5:20 a.m. and boards the bus at 5:53 a.m. for a hour-long ride to school.
Yes, it's early and yes, some mornings are harder to get up, but Carter says she does it because she is learning what she loves and knows that it's her ticket to a great future.
"I want to show other people that you don't have to be stuck because of your circumstances," said Carter. "With hard work, you can do anything. I see myself starting a scholarship. These past few months have been so stressful because it's hard trying to figure out how to pay for college. I would like to help others so they won't have to go through what I am going through now."
Kyrstin Konow, senior guidance counselor, said that Carter has a quiet determination that sets her apart from her fellow classmates.
"She's motivated and achieves her goals," said Konow. "She presents herself professionally. She's passionate about baking."
Mario Longo, chef instructor, concurs and said that he is certain that Carter will be a success at whatever path she chooses.
As far as he is concerned, Johnson & Wales and The Culinary Institute of America in New York are the top culinary schools in the nation.
Longo said he is not surprised that Carter made it into the "Harvard" of cooking schools.
"Her skills do stand out," said Longo. "She is dedicated and focused. She excels at whatever station you put her in because of that focus."
Longo said not only she's a good baker, but she's also a honor student. She scored an A in her Senior Culinary Art Project, which entails writing a research paper that culminates her four years of instruction, but it also requires that she design a menu and then prepare it. The project also requires that she mentor a freshman.
"She'll get the job done," said Longo. "I'll put her up against any adult in the field right now."