By Raynard Churchwell
A film shooting in Atlanta recently posted a casting call for the role of “college student” among the qualifications was that applicants needed to be between 18-26. At GSU, we know that college students are not always fresh out of high school. Many of our students, enroll in our programs or return to school to complete their degrees later on in life. This was the case for 2023 FMT graduate Nancy Riley-James. Her story is one of perseverance and determination, and she is inspiring others with her persistence to finish college.
Growing up in a military family, Riley-James spent most of her childhood in Texas and Warner Robins, Georgia. After graduating from Northside High School in 1997, she went on to attend the University of Georgia to study Journalism.
“I went to UGA for the first three years, and took a little break,” Riley-James said. “I came back around 2001, stayed for about a year, but never finished my degree.”
After leaving the University of Georgia, Riley-James worked in media. She received her Aesthetics license in 2010.
“I’ve been doing hair and makeup in production for the last 12 years,” Riley-James said.
Riley-James’s love for film was sparked years ago when she worked as a stand-in for actress Margaret Cho in the comedy series “Drop Dead Diva” and the action film “Ben10”, shot in Atlanta. Since that day, Riley-James knew that the entertainment industry is where she wanted to take her career.
“I loved being on set,” Riley-James explained. “Just being a part of the whole production world. I loved how every day we were doing something different or in a different location. It was a great time meeting new people and being on the sound stages. I enjoyed it. But I’ve always been into film ever since I was a kid. I love the creativity in it, and it was always cool watching all the different departments work together to create a major project.”
When it came to completing her education, Riley-James says that she contemplated going back to school for a while, but it wasn’t until the pandemic shutdown that she decided to enroll at Georgia State.
“So, I toyed with the idea of going back to school for years,” Riley-James explained. “It just never seemed like the right time. I was taking care of my daughter too. So, in my thirties, I felt like I couldn’t do this. With a kid and working so much, I didn’t see how it would work.”
“When the shutdown happened in 2020, I figured that maybe this was the best time to go back to school. I had heard a lot of great things about Georgia State, including its film program, which was right down the street from where I lived. So, I figured it was the best route for me.”
With her credits transferring over from the University of Georgia, after two prerequisite classes, Riley-James was accepted into the GSU film program in 2021 as a part-time student. Riley-James describes her experience in the film department as exciting and informative.
“I really loved GSU’s film program,” Riley-James said. “Especially my last semester because it was very hands-on. Working on the film feature “Rejuvenation” with Tom Luse was a cool experience.”
“When I joined the program, it was intimidating to me at first because going back as an older student and being around young creatives was kind of an “omg” moment. Everyone was really good and they were like twenty-year-olds. But it was cool to be able to work with them. It was also kind of funny because I went to school in the 90s, so we didn’t have YouTube and all the different editing software that everyone is so good at now. Back in those days, there was a film minor at UGA, it wasn’t like the technical aspects of the film they study now. Overall, I really enjoyed it.”
In early May, Riley-James completed her twenty-plus-year journey as she walked across the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in film. When asked how she felt after graduating, she explained that she was proud of herself for persevering.
“It’s just something that I know that I’ve wanted to accomplish for a very long time, and it was just such a great feeling,” Riley-James said. “I was beaming all weekend afterward. It was just awesome. I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and it was something really cool to do at my age.”
Riley-James discussed how Georgia State University gave her confidence and how she wanted to inspire other non-traditional students to receive their degrees as well.
“One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that it’s never too late to do things,” Riley-James said. “You can do things on your own timeline. This experience also taught me that I can be a mentor to other filmmakers and help them get better.”
“I just had a conversation with a friend the other day who’s turning 50 and he told me how inspired he was by me, and how he wanted to go back to school and get his PhD now. So, for those who think they’re too old for school, I would just say drop the whole age thing and do it.”
Riley-James says the film program taught her many new skills and would recommend any filmmakers to come to Georgia State.
“I would recommend Georgia State’s film program 100 percent,” Riley-James said. “We’re here in Atlanta, which is now a big film hub. I feel that being in this location you can make the connections you need. It’s also such a great program and offers many hands-on opportunities such as the Georgia Film Academy and making films for an entire semester like Rejuvenation. Most schools don’t offer that, and I am truly grateful for my experience here.”