(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: Q&A With Kelly Jensen

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health is a new anthology that aims to get young people opening up about their inner struggles. Editor Kelly Jensen collected personal mental health stories from a range of writers, including Shaun David Hutchinson, Libba Bray, Adam Silvera, and Kristen Bell. “Jensen brought together sharp and vivid perspectives concerning mental-health challenges,” commented the Washington Post. “This book asks questions and provides real-life experiences and hope for the future.”

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Kelly Jensen speaking at Buffalo Street Books

Jensen, a writer and editor for Book Riot and a former teen librarian, was a featured speaker on November 4 in The Sophie Fund’s “Readings on Mental Health” series hosted by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County at Buffalo Street Books. She spoke to The Sophie Fund’s Margaret McKinnis about her work.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How did you come to this project?

KELLY JENSEN: I started by wanting to do an anthology on feminism. I put that together and it came out in early 2017. I’ve always struggled with my own mental health, so this is something that’s always sort of been in the back of my head. There was an essay in the feminism book about mental health, and I realized as I was reading—“Oh, there’s a whole book here.”

I had studied writing and psychology in college, and it sort of blended the two. I realized there’s nothing out there that talks about mental health for younger readers in a way that’s conversational rather than statistical. Statistics and numbers are important, but I know what was helpful for me was reading people’s narratives and hearing these stories about what they’ve done and how they’ve experienced their mental challenges. I wanted to compile as much as I could from a wide range of voices to show there’s no “one way.” That was sort of the way it came together. I proposed it to my editor of the feminist one and they were like, “Yes! Let’s do this.”

THE SOPHIE FUND: What was the process of gathering all of these stories?

KELLY JENSEN: My day job is working as an editor for a book website, so I read a lot and have a lot of contacts for people who write. I reached out to some people who I knew had written about their mental health experiences in some capacity, rather than reaching out to any author and asking, “Do you want to talk about this super personal thing?” These people had talked about it before, so there was some level of understanding of what that would be like. It’s not easy and it’s not fun.

And then from there, I expanded to look outside the writing world because mental health impacts all kinds of people. I did some research to find some pieces that were out there already and went to see if I could reprint some of them. There’s a piece in there from Reid Ewing who’s on Modern Family. He had this brilliant piece about body dysmorphic disorder and being addicted to plastic surgery.

Then there were a couple pieces that were fresh. One of the other contributors had a contact with someone in the music industry, so MILCK (who wrote the anthem for the Women’s March) wrote this brilliant piece that was a letter to her 14-year-old self about confidence but also about her struggles with anxiety and eating disorders. It was essentially a beautiful love letter to get through it. And then there’s a piece in there, too, from Nancy Kerrigan. She wrote this piece on believing in yourself and the ways she has found confidence in herself. And I was like, “Oh this is perfect,” especially thinking about 13- and 14-year-olds who are still figuring it out. I was just grateful she could put something like that in.

The biggest challenge was putting the pieces in an order that made any sort of sense. With the feminism book, there were some clear themes that emerged throughout, but with mental health there was not a great theme that worked, and trying to create a theme didn’t feel right. I want everyone to go into the book and get what they get out of it and not have me as an editor tell them what they should be getting. The big theme I found going through was finding this spot of being okay. Maybe not great. Maybe not bad. But right in that middle of being okay. When I found that as sort of the way of piecing it together, I also found a way of grouping the essays together.

THE SOPHIE FUND: I know the book is a little multimedia with some art pieces. Was that your intention from the beginning or did it come after the fact?

KELLY JENSEN: I knew I wanted to do it a like a scrapbook style, so I knew I would end up using art. There are so many ways to tell a story, and with such a range of experiences, art just feels like a natural way of getting there.

I wanted it to be a book people would want to look at rather than a textbook. I mean there’s heavy stuff in there, but I don’t want to people to feel like they’re going to be miserable reading it. And yeah it’s challenging to read at times, but I think the comics and the design my publishers put behind it really makes it a more enjoyable reading experience.

THE SOPHIE FUND: The invitational aspect of the book seems to mirror this idea of normalizing the conversation around mental health, and I’m wondering as the book has become a part of the world, how it has become a part of that conversation?

KELLY JENSEN: The book came out a little over a month ago, and I’ve been going nonstop since. It’s been really interesting because it’s forced me to think about my own experiences in a way I never thought I would.

I have done a bunch of high school events with hundreds of hundreds of kids, which has been awesome. A lot of them ask me things like, “How do I determine if it’s stress versus an actual problem?” It’s nice to sit down with somebody and say okay the fact that you’re even asking this is step one and that’s when you can talk to someone you trust and say, “Okay here’s what I am experiencing—what do you think?”

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what I think society-wise is causing this. In part mental illness stems from culture, but it’s also biological and just happens. There’s not any set reason. Often someone asks that because they have a theory, and sometimes you just have to say that could be part of it, but there’s no one cause, just like there’s no one treatment or course to fix anybody.

It changes community by community, too. I did an event at the beginning of October in a fairly conservative community in Wisconsin, but they have a whole commission that is focused on mental health and so the conversation in their community it not new or fresh. They’ve been having it. It’s interesting to go and talk to those kids and hear their questions and then go to a school where that’s not the case, and they have very different questions like, “How do we break the stigma? How do we talk about this?” It’s fascinating.

If the conversation is normalized, if it’s a conversation that’s happening, it’s easier to then talk about versus if it’s not talked about at all you don’t even have the language to start.

THE SOPHIE FUND: It seems like access to language is a theme that comes out of these conversations. It seems so necessary for us to be able to differentiate between these different experiences.

KELLY JENSEN: I have a really complicated relationship with the word crazy because sometimes well-meaning people can say they’re not going to use that word because of what it can stand for. But they stop there. They don’t take it further and have a conversation about mental health or do something that could further their sense of mental health care. I get annoyed because that doesn’t solve the problem, it just removes the word from your language, and ultimately from you having to think about it or stop and consider the bigger implications of the word. There’s not one way to talk about your approach to mental health, but you have to talk about it to even to get to that point where you can even discuss these nuances.

THE SOPHIE FUND: I know it’s only been out for a month, but what was your vision for the impact?

KELLY JENSEN: The school district that I talked about earlier who brought me in had community reads. They bought hundreds of copies of the book that they could distribute to students and adults in the community. They ran a number of book clubs throughout the month. They did all kinds of events centered around mental health, and they used this book because the pieces were short and persona. If more communities were able to create this culture of communication and openness, and have it come from the community itself, it trickles down. Then kids know they have permission.

I would love to see more people using it as tool to start talking, even it’s only one or two pieces and that’s all that resonates or all they use, that still gets the conversation starting.

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THE SOPHIE FUND: I think there’s something to be said for having something that mediates the conversation and gives context so you aren’t starting from square one.

KELLY JENSEN: It’s a vulnerable conversation to have, too.

I was so excited when The Sophie Fund ask me to come here because what a cool opportunity to have stories take the center. I think if you start with other people’s narratives it does get easier to break into a conversation around it.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Do you have a mental health philosophy?

KELLY JENSEN: I don’t know if I have a mental health philosophy. I think I have a fascination with it. I think there’s value in being fascinated by what your mind does and what your experiences are, and the metanarrative about what you think about what you’re thinking, which is hard to think about it.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Do you have any other things that you’d like to talk about with the book or even just about your views on mental health in general?

KELLY JENSEN: Mental health is trial and error. There were a number of people who said to me it might take you forever to find a medication that works for you or might work for you for a little bit and then stop working. My experience was the first medication was perfect. Your personal experience might not mirror other’s advice.

The hard part of it all is if you try to hold this idea that every experience is valid and has the nuances that it does, it can just get overwhelming. Culturally we have defined what “normal” generally looks like, but most people don’t fall in that.

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.

Thank You, Cornell Student Mental Health Champions

The Sophie Fund organizes an annual “Cupcake Button Campaign” each fall to support local mental health organizations. College students fan out across campus and the wider community soliciting donations and awarding generous souls with buttons depicting a colorful cupcake. The campaign is a run-up to the annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest, held in the Commons in mid-October.

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“Cupcake a Cornellian”

Students from Cornell University outdid themselves this year: they collected some 300 donations totaling $1,367.50, smashing last year’s record of $829.50 that went to the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service.

The 2018 goal was to raise monies for the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, a nonprofit advocacy and service organization that runs critical training and education programs as well as community social events. The Sophie Fund will present the Cupcake Button Campaign donations to the Mental Health Association at a ceremony in January.

The student groups behind this year’s fundraising included Cornell Minds Matter (CMM), Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter (APO), Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity, PATCH (Pre-Professional Association Towards Careers in Health), and the Mortar Board Der Hexenkreis Senior Honor Society.

A highlight of the campaign: “Cupcake a Cornellian,” an event held in Cornell’s Arts Quad on October 12 in which students made donations in exchange for the opportunity to mash a gooey cupcake (or just a heaping plate of whipped cream) into the face of a student leader.

APO President Winnie Ho praised the Cornell organizations and spoke about how the campaign raised awareness as well as money:

“Every penny of our fundraising total this year was due to the hard work of volunteers who engaged students and community members at Ho Plaza, the Arts Quad, and at the Collegetown GreenStar Natural Foods location. Beyond the impressive totals, the conversations that were fostered continue to be the most valuable experience of each year’s fundraising.

“Donors leave more than a monetary contribution—oftentimes, they leave us with their thoughts, experiences, and hopes for what mental health will look like in our society. Everyone from fellow students who ask how to get involved, to former and current practitioners who share both grim and hopeful stories in the workplace, have stopped and allowed for genuine interactions that are crucial in our fight to de-stigmatize conversations around mental health. While there are many battles left to have around mental health, there are so many people committed to this fight.”

One of the tactics in the fight, noted Chelsea Kiely, CMM vice president for events and co-chair of Cornell’s 2018 Mental Health Awareness Week, is getting mental health out in the open.

“The turnout for ‘Cupcake a Cornellian’ was incredible, and was so much fun all around,” she said, adding: “I especially enjoyed cupcaking Matt Jirsa, the co-president of Cornell Minds Matter.”

This Thanksgiving, The Sophie Fund thanks our community’s student mental health champions.

 

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Winnie Ho, cupcaked

 

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Matt Jirsa, after a colorful cupcaking

 

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Winnie Ho and Matt Jirsa, survivors of “Cupcake a Cornellian”

 

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Photos courtesy of Winnie Ho and Matt Jirsa

Send Silence Packing @ Ithaca College

Backpacks were scattered all over Ithaca College’s Emerson Suites on Monday. No, this high-traffic space wasn’t a convenient dumping ground for students taking mid-terms or heading to the cafeteria for a meal. The backpacks were a powerful exhibition called “Send Silence Packing,” a suicide prevention initiative traveling to American college campuses. The 1,100 backpacks represent the average number of college students who die by suicide every year.

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“Send Silence Packing” is a project of Active Minds, a national organization promoting student mental health through branch chapters at colleges around the county. Ithaca College’s chapter, led by co-presidents Zoe Howland and Mikaela Vojnik, hosted Monday’s exhibition in Emerson Suites.

The display is immersive and thought provoking. Each backpack includes a personal story or a quote from someone who has lost a loved to suicide. “I feel like the visual display really invokes a certain feeling that just talking about it doesn’t necessarily do,” Howland said.

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“There were a lot of people who came through on the way to their classes and were really intrigued with all the stories that were on the backpacks,” said Active Minds member Kristin Butler. She said that the event was an opportunity for “continuing the conversation on campus, which is great.”

Junior anthropology major Paige Twinning commented: “Powerful and important. The visual representation and personal profiles of individuals really made an impact.”

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“Send Silence Packing,” which has visited almost 200 campuses and reached nearly a million people, is intended to generate discussions about suicide and provide information about suicide prevention resources.

Ithaca College’s day-long event, sponsored in part by The Sophie Fund, began at 7:30 a.m. and included an evening Speak Your Mind panel discussion on suicide prevention moderated by Active Minds member Kelly Madden. Participating in the panel were representatives from key local mental health organizations, including the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Finger Lakes, and the Advocacy Center. Said Kaylee McGillicuddy, a sophomore psychology major: “It’s just nice to know there are people who care.”

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Based on surveys, the Active Minds national organization reports that most people attending the “Send Silence Packing” installation are left wanting to know more about mental health, and 95 percent of attendees rate the experience as powerful.

Active Minds has chapters or other operations on more than 600 college campuses across the country. In June, a study of Active Minds published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that student peer organizations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviors.

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The Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment, in a survey of 19,861 students at more than 40 American schools, reported that 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

According to the 2017 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, data collected from 147 college counseling centers showed that 34.2 percent of 161,014 college students seeking counseling in the 2016–17 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” The rate increased for the seventh year in a row, up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 10 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

—By Margaret McKinnis

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

Cupcake Joy, 2018 Edition

Enjoy a photo gallery from the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest organized by The Sophie Fund in the Ithaca Commons on October 13, 2018.

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Tough competition, true temptation!

 

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The Grand Prize Winner: “Strawberry Surprise Cupcakes” with a cored whole strawberry filled with salted butterscotch, topped by a brown sugar cream cheese frosting, decorated with a chocolate fan, sliced strawberry, mint leaves, and a mini chocolate strawberry macaron.

 

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Grand Prize Winner Zoe Dubrow enters her cupcakes at the registration desk

 

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Zoe Dubrow receives the Grand Prize Award from Debbie Lazinski of GreenStar Natural Foods Market ($250 GreenStar gift certificate)

 

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Natalie McCaskill-Myers’s pumpkin apple spice cupcakes with black cat decorations

 

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Rhonda Williamsee’s mint chocolate “cocoa coma” cupcakes

 

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Ella Kain’s lemon cupcakes with buttercream frosting

 

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Mary Sever-Schoonmaker “If You Like Pina Colada” cupcakes

 

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Kyra O’Toole’s Youth Award-winning chocolate cheesecake cupcakes with an Oreo crust

 

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Aušra Milano’s amaretto chocolate cupcakes decorated with a flower arrangement

 

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Contest producer Mickie Quinn confers with student volunteer from Cornell University

 

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All in the family

 

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Handle with care!

 

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Let the judging begin!

 

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Drum roll, please! The Finalists!

 

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VIP Judge: Yuko Jingu of Akemi Food

 

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VIP Judge: Melissa Kenny of Sweet Melissa’s Ice Cream Shop

 

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VIP Judge: Daleila Norman of GreenStar Natural Foods Market

 

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VIP Judge: Kathleen Sherman Morrow of Felicia’s Atomic Brewhouse and Bakery

 

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Kitana Scofflaw of The House of Merlot

 

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Sgt. Cupcake Rob Natoli

 

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SingTrece & Kenneth McLaurin sing their Ithaca rendition of “New York, New York”

 

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Nellia Mattson performs with her ukulele

 

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Volunteers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Central New York Chapter

 

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Volunteers from Cornell University’s Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter

 

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Volunteers from Cornell Minds Matter

 

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Matthew Jirsa, co-president of Cornell Minds Matter

 

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Winnie Ho, president of Cornell University’s Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter

 

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Charles Niven of the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County

Ithaca Cupcakes 2018: Special Awards

Contestants in the 3rd Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest on Saturday offered up some gorgeous and tasty entries—congratulations to these winners of Special Awards!

Most Masterful Musical Melody Award

Natalie McCaskill-Myers

Most Creatively Crafty Cupcake

Sally Brenner

Most Fabulously Floral Cupcake

Aušra Milano

Most Awesome Autumn

Robyn Schmitt

Most Magnificent Marvelous Moose Masterpiece

Claire Litwin

Most Sensationally Cinnamony Cupcake

Isabella Jones and Navia Marshall

Most Must Eat the Whole Chocolatey-Minty Thing Award

Rhonda Williamsee

The Everything Fun about Fall Cupcake

Sean Vickroy

Most Caramel Crave-Quenching Confection

Alana Craib

Chilliest Coconut Cake Confection

Matilde Portnoy

Best Cupcake to Take on the Trail

Ella Corson

Best Campfire Cupcake

Maggie Chutter

Most Likely to Make the Judges Go Coco for Coconut Award

Cierra Howard

Best Flavorful Fall Frosting

Jessara Thomas

Most Luxuriously Luscious Lavender Cupcake

Oluademi James-Daniel

Best Birthday cupCake

Ella Kain

Pretty in Pink Award

Ibtisaam Ahmed

Novel Neopolitan

Jenna Kain

Harvest Cupcake

Lianna White

Chocolate Chili

Sadie Hays

Best Carrot Top

Sul Jordan

Most Luscious Lemon

Talon Jordan

Tastiest Toastiest Pumpkin

Cristin McLaughin and Searra Lindhurst

Ultimate Chocolate Tower

Sonia and Ella Carr

Classic Superstar

Matt Jirsa for Cornell Minds Matter

 

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Natalie McCaskill-Myers’s entry:  Pumpkin apple spice cupcakes with cream cheese cardamom frosting, decorated with violins, soccer balls… and black cats representing Sophie’s cat Bagel and Natalie’s cat Curry Burger.

 

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Sally Brenner’s entry: Chocolate cupcakes with Key lime and kiwi-flavored frosting

 

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Aušra Milano’s entry: Amaretto chocolate cupcakes decorated with a flower arrangement

 

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Robyn Schmitt’s entry: Cinnamon and apple cupcakes

 

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Claire Litwin’s entry: Passion fruit curd, passion fruit mousse, and chocolate mousse in a joconde sponge cake, decorated with moose antlers in homage to the mousse layers

 

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Isabella Jones and Navia Marshall’s entry: Pumpkin spice cupcakes with maple frosting and a cinnamon stick

 

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Rhonda Williamsee’s entry: Mint chocolate “cocoa coma” cupcakes

 

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Sean Vickroy’s entry: Apple butter cupcakes with red winter frosting in the holiday spirit

 

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Alana Craib’s entry: Yellow cupcakes with maple frosting and candied walnuts

 

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Matilde Portnoy’s entry: “Tropicupcakes” with roasted almonds and cinnamon cream cheese frosting

 

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Ella Corson’s entry: Granola chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting

 

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Maggie Chutter’s entry: “Banana Boat Cupcakes,” with chocolate ganache core and meringue frosting

 

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Cierra Howard’s entry: “Macadamia Coconut Cupcakes,” frosted with Swiss meringue buttercream and topped with a coconut macaroon ball

 

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Jessara Thomas’s entry: Pumpkin and spice cupcakes with a pumpkin decoration on top

 

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Oluademi James-Daniel’s entry: Yellow lemon cupcake with a purple Earl Grey and lavender frosting

 

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Ella Kain’s entry: Lemon cupcakes with buttercream frosting

 

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Ibtisaam Ahmed: entry: “Rose Cupcakes, a Fusion of East and West.” American-style vanilla cupcakes with crème patisserie of European bakeries and delicate rose flavor common in North Africa, Middle East, Persia and the Indian subcontinent.

 

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Jenna Kain’s entry: Neapolitan cupcakes with strawberry buttercream frosting

 

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Lianna White’s entry: Gluten-free carrot, raisin, and walnut cupcakes with cashew buttercream frosting

 

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Sadie Hays’s entry: “Noche Buena,” a coffee and chili-infused New Mexican chocolate cupcake topped with whipped cream and a biscochito

 

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Sul Jordan’s entry: Pumpkin spice cupcakes with buttercream frosting

 

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Talon Jordan’s entry: Lemon cupcakes with vanilla buttercream frosting

 

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Cristin McLaughin and Searra Lindhurst’s entry: Vegan Pumpin S’more Vegan Cupcakes with marshmallow filling and chocolate frosting

 

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Sonia and Ella Carr’s entry: “The Chocolate Tower” triple-chocolate fudge cupcakes with strawberry-flavored fudge frosting

 

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Matt Jirsa for Cornell Minds Matter’s entry: Classic cupcakes with star-shaped sprinkles