Inaugural class of MFA Film students graduates

They are trailblazers and creatives…and now they are graduates of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program at the University of Georgia.

Elise Nation carries a large production camera.
Elise Nation shows off one the hand-held production cameras at the beginning of the MFA Film program. Nation, who appreicates a variety of film genres including animated movies like “Mulan” says, “I want to be part of making those films that inspire little girls and boys of the next generation to be able to do anything.” (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

The program, which was approved in Spring 2020 and met for the first time behind masks that fall, held graduation ceremonies August 13, 2022.

“There are so many learning experiences,” said Nalani Dowling (MFA ’22), a member of the inaugural class. “There were really good mentorships, and having the time and resources to explore what it means to be a filmmaker was invaluable.”

Another graduate, Elise Nation (AB ’18, MFA ’22), was attracted to the program because it built on her undergraduate degrees in entertainment and media studies and film. She also liked the idea of having a terminal degree if she wanted to teach one day. In addition to the education, it was the connections that proved most memorable for her.

From the Halloween bonfire the group enjoyed their first year in Athens, to the Friendsgiving celebration they bonded over when they were living in the town of Trilith, Nation admitted it is the friendships that develop over shared experiences that will be lasting.

“It was the summer films that we made in Athens right before we moved to Trilith that I will remember,” Nation recalls. “It was the first time doing our own work, all crewing for each other, that sticks in my mind. They were crazy and long hours, but a wonderful experience. You wanted to be the best you can be for their projects, because you wanted them to be the best they can be for your own project.”

MFA Film Foundations
Two ladies at a table and four students standing around with light in the corner, ready to film a scene.
The inaugural class started the program in fall 2020, amid masks. Their first production classes took place at the OTS film studios in Atlanta. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

The MFA Film program is a two-year intensive program teaching students directing, screenwriting, producing and other skills related to move into creative careers in Georgia’s lucrative film business, a $4.4 billion industry in fiscal year 2022.

While the focus is on above-the-line industry positions, each student is educated in a variety of fundamentals, from sound design and lighting, to acting and camera work.

“If the students learn how to do these things and learn the language, they will understand the process better and have greater insight and empathy in the long run,” said Jeff Springston, former director of the MFA programs at Grady College.

The intensive program is designed so that the first year is spent on UGA’s campus in Athens, Georgia, taking core classes and learning production basics including writing, storytelling and filming, among many other skills. The students produce their first film, telling a story in roughly four minutes, using only natural sound or music and no dialogue.

Neil Landau, who is current director of screenwriting and the new director of the MFA Film program, notes that in two years, the students create at least one TV pilot, one feature film and three films.

“It’s extremely rigorous,” Landau admits, “but that’s what works really well — students are trained to be writers and directors, or writers and producers and not trained to do just one thing — they are learning a combination of skills.”

The MFA Film program is led by faculty from both Grady College and Franklin College and blends the curriculum to benefit the students.

One of Nation’s favorite courses for instance, Art Direction for Film and Television, was taught by Julie Ray and included discussions about art in film, color theory and how to merge roles through color and costuming.

“She taught me that film is not just about shots and story, but about color and music, too,” Nation said.

The second year is spent living in the town of Trilith, located next to the studios where Marvel movies are filmed. Classes are conducted in a custom-built suite featuring theater-quality A/V projection and sound system, sophisticated editing bays and collaboration space. Studio space for additional training and productions is available across the street through another MFA program partner, the Georgia Film Academy.

Applications for the MFA Film cohort beginning Fall 2023 will be late November/early December 2022. Visit for more details.

Thesis Film Projects
Two people film a girl in a tent for Elise Nation's thesis film, "Poppy."
One of the thesis films screened at graduation was “Poppy,” the story of a little girl in a pillow fort experiencing adventures in her dreams. (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

Students turn to creating their thesis film projects during the second year as they choose between a writing/producing track writing full scripts and producing films their classmates are directing, or a writing/directing track, where they develop full productions that are 8 to 15 minutes in length. The thesis films were screened at graduation in front of parents bursting with pride and faculty and student colleagues who empathized with the personal investment and creative stamina needed to pull them off.

To further their education in real-world scenarios, students were encouraged to participate in real-world exercises ranging from working the backStory group to partner with composers from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance to produce original scores for their films, to pitching their project to a team of faculty and mentors for additional money to produce their films.

“Once students are in the work world, the whole game is about pitching your product,” Springston explained about the pitch competition.

Nation and Dowling were two of three students awarded additional money for their projects, and agreed that the exercise was about more than just the money.

“Pitching our films was a wonderful experience,” Nation said. “It’s a good lesson in how to pitch your own material and get other people excited about it and try to get your vision of it across.”

Nalana Dowling sits in a corner looking at a camera reviewing production footage.
Nalani Dowling takes a few minutes to review production footage on her camera during filming of her thesis film, “Breach,” about the relationship between two sisters-in-law. (Photo: courtesy of Nalani Dowling)

In a nod to the adage, “write what you know,” both Dowling and Nation directed thesis films that are personal pursuits in several ways. Dowling worked on a project called “Breach,” about the relationship between two sisters-in-law during a stressful pregnancy for one of the characters. Dowling is attracted to themes of female relationships, drawing on the relationship she has with her sister.

Nation directed “Poppy,” a dream sequence following a young girl who pursues adventures like traveling in space and exploring the African wilderness…until the camera comes back to reality and she is in the hospital fighting for her life. This, too, hit close to home as Nation spent time right before the program started caring for her niece who was battling leukemia. Although the short film ends on an uncertain note, Nation’s niece is doing well and attended graduation to cheer on her aunt.

Making Connections

In the end, the film industry is about connections and that is another lesson illustrated many ways throughout the MFA program.

For instance, once the students moved to Trilith, they had to establish a pipeline to accomplish their end goals. These contacts ranged from connecting with the crew from Georgia Film Academy who helped with their thesis films to an impromptu encounter with Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A and a main investor in Trilith Studios. Cathy is also a key financial supporter of the MFA Film program at UGA.

Dowling recalls how Cathy was very helpful. He had talked with the group on a call early in the program, telling them they have been challenged to impact the world and storytelling is the most impactful way to do that. Then, he gave the students his cell number. And, the students used it.

“We were meeting at GFA and one of my classmates just texted him to let him know we were there,” Dowling recalls. “He came right over and we just piled in a van and he showed us the studios. They were filming the most recent Spider Man movie and we hadn’t signed waivers or anything, but he was showing us all around the studios.”

After the tour, he took the group out to dinner, one of a few times he did that.

The moral of the story is clear, said Dowling: “Don’t be afraid to ask, and know who to ask.”

A group of about 16 MFA Film graduates and Chick-fil-A employees gather for a picture around a table in a restaurant.
Dan Cathy (seated in light blue shirt at center of group), was a major financial supporter of the MFA Film program and helped the MFA Film students get acclimated to their second year of the program once they moved to the Town of Trilith. (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

Cathy had periodic interactions with the students, including attending the graduation ceremonies.

“Here at Trilith, we are setting the stage to inspire the next generation of storytellers,” Cathy told the graduates. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

Nalani Dowling holds flowers at graduation and poses for a picture with MFA Film faculty.
Nalani Dowling (left) is congratulated after graduation by MFA Film faculty Neil Landau, Sanghoon Lee and Shandra McDonald. Dowling praised Landau for caring about the success of the students and helping to bring out their identity as filmmakers. “He genuinely wants to understand our work and where we are coming from, but also to give us creative freedom since we all come from different places with our beliefs and experiences,” Dowling said. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

The students also connected with an impressive A-list of industry professionals, serving as Distinguished Industry Mentors. Each student was paired with a mentor who shared ideas, taught lessons and helped students network in the industry.

The inaugural class also had a two-hour master class with Stephen Canals, co-creator and executive producer of “Pose.”

Next Steps

Chuck Hayward, acclaimed for his work on “WandaVision” and his co-executive producer role on “Ted Lasso,” mentored new graduate Kelvin Summerhill (MFA ’22) and has already signed on to be an Artist-in-Residence for the new class of MFA Film students. Landau said that Summerhill exceeded his modest goal raising money for his film, “Black Butterfly,” thanks to an attractive contribution by Hayward.

Dowling was paired with Davita Scarlett, writer and co-executive producer of “The Good Fight” and “Evil.”

“Being paired with Davita was awesome,” Dowling said. “Even with her busy schedule, she took the time to read the first TV pilot I wrote in the program. She gave really helpful feedback and notes on how I could improve the episode, as well as my TV writing skills overall.”

With graduation behind them, the students will start using those networks to land jobs.

Nation has taken a job to teach film at Emory, while Dowling has renewed her lease for her apartment in Trilith and will continue working part-time for a small production company she has worked with the past few months.

Most the students will also submit their final projects to film festivals, a popular avenue to garner attention from agents and representation for future projects.

“The success of this program depends 100% on the accomplishments of the students, that they leave happy and are ready to break into a really competitive business,” Landau concluded.

In the meantime, there were a few students from the new cohort of MFA Film students in the graduation audience watching the thesis films, some nervous about their turn but all excited about what’s to come.

For more about the MFA Film program, see the “Lights. Camera. Action!” feature from Georgia Magazine.
To view pictures from the MFA Film graduation, see the UGA Grady Flickr account.


Rosalind Bentley named interim director of MFA Narrative Nonfiction program

Rosalind Bentley (MFA ’17), a Pulitzer Prize finalist, two-time James Beard Award finalist and nationally recognized narrative journalist and essayist, has been named the interim director of the Master in Fine Arts in Narrative Nonfiction program.

In addition to this interim appointment, Bentley is the new deputy editor at the Southern Foodways Alliance and new editor-at-large for the Oxford American. Most recently, Bentley served as senior arts and culture writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she worked for 18 years.

“As a graduate of our MFA Narrative Media Writing program, I felt Roz was the ideal person to lead the program through this interim period,” said Jeff Springston, director of MFA programs at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

Valerie Boyd, founder and director of the MFA Narrative Nonfiction program, as it is also known, died in February. Bentley was a student in the program’s inaugural class in 2015.

“I greatly appreciate Roz’s willingness to serve in this capacity and am fully confident that she will help us maintain this program at the high level that Valerie so ably achieved,” Springston said.

Bentley will recruit students to the program and promote and represent it nationally. She will also review Fall 2022 applications along with faculty and design the Fall residency.

“This program changed the trajectory of my life, and it can do the same for others,” Bentley said. “Valerie designed this program to appeal not just to those early in their careers, but also to those who are mid- or even late career, and who want a more fulfilling and productive writing life.”

Bentley has written for numerous publications including The New York Times, the Oxford American, Southern Living, Saveur and Essence. As an enterprise writer at The Minneapolis Star Tribune she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work on the newspaper’s “Issues of Race” series. In 2019, she was a columnist for “Gravy,” a publication of the Southern Foodways Alliance, where her column “Rooted in Place,” was a finalist for two James Beard Awards, including the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Her essay “The Blessing and Burden of Forever,” published in the summer 2020 issue of Oxford American, was named a notable essay in the “Best American Essays 2021” edition of the annual series. Bentley’s essay, “Iron and Brass,” is in the upcoming anthology “Bigger than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic,” edited by Boyd and due to be published in September by Lookout Books. Bentley received a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from Florida A&M University.

Bentley was close friends with Boyd for 18 years and watched her design and launch the MFA program. This program is among the only low-residency, narrative nonfiction studies in the country based in a college of journalism where it is committed to the mission of telling true, well-reported stories in a literary way.

“Representing this program and leading it during this time of transition is a responsibility not just to the Grady College and the University of Georgia, it is also a chance to make sure Valerie’s vision is not lost,” Bentley said. “Valerie created a program that, while based in journalistic rigor, speaks to the whole student and their dreams.”

The MFA Narrative Nonfiction program is a two-year, low-residency program designed to cultivate writers whose work will be published in book or essay form. The program offers students an opportunity to develop skills that will prepare them to be accomplished authors, editors, literary agents or other industry professionals.

A number of leading editors, writers and instructors serve as MFA mentors including: Moni Basu, the Michael and Linda Connelly Lecturer in Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Florida; John T. Edge, author of “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South;” Lolis Eric Elie, filmmaker, television writer for series such as HBO’s “Treme;” Melissa Faye Greene, author of several books including the award-winning “Praying for Sheetrock;” Pat Thomas, professor emerita and former Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism at UGA; and Jan Winburn, editor of the Pulitzer Prize winning story, “The Umpire’s Son,” reported by Lisa Pollak.

Now in its seventh year, the program has produced students and graduates who’ve had impressive success in the publishing arena. Among them:  Martin Padgett (MFA ’18), author of “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head;” Brandon Fleming (MFA ’21), “Miseducated: A Memoir;” and Andre Gallant (MFA ’17), “A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster.” Others have begun new careers in publishing, such as KaToya Fleming (MFA ’18), now editor of Lookout Books at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Other students have published long-form narrative essays including Jarrett Van Meter and Jasmin Pittman Morrell in the Bitter Southerner and Mikeie Honda Reiland in Oxford American.

“The narrative nonfiction program at UGA is like no other and our diverse student body and faculty are broadening the canon with each story they write,” Bentley said. “It is an honor support them as they bring those true stories into the world.”

Applications for the MFA program are due by May 1. More information can be found on the MFA Narrative Nonfiction website.


Reaching goals through the MFA program in Screenwriting

This is the second of a two-part series highlighting a few successes earned by students, faculty and alumni of the low-residency MFA program in Narrative Media Writing. This installment illustrates a sampling of the paths taken by those in the Screenwriting track. Read about successes in the Narrative Nonfiction program here.

Success as a screenwriter often comes in the form of a produced movie or television show, or in teaching the next generation how to find their voices and write their own screenplays.

The MFA program in Narrative Media Program, developed by directors Valerie Boyd (Narrative Nonfiction) and Nate Kohn (Screenwriting), affords writers the opportunity to learn in a low-residency format. Students have flexible schedules so they can study without having to give up their jobs or uproot their lives while pursuing a degree. The program features a week on campus in Athens at the beginning of each semester, followed by a distanced semester of individualized instruction by an impressive faculty of industry mentors.

Following are some recent success stories from MFA alumni and faculty in the Screenwriting track.

 Wendy Eley Jackson (MFA ’19)

When Wendy Eley Jackson graduated from the MFA screenwriting program, her accomplishment was a goal deferred but one that was worth the wait.

Jackson had dreamed for several years about earning her MFA but waited for her two children to finish their undergraduate degrees first.

“When UGA created this program, I seized the opportunity to improve my storytelling skills and become a better writer,” Jackson said. “Producing has always come easy for me but I wanted to be a masterful writer as well. UGA gave me that.”

The one-on-one contact with MFA faculty and mentors and the small class size are the qualities Jackson appreciated the most about the program.

Wendy Eley Jackson during an MFA scriptwriting roundtable in 2019. (Sarah E. Freeman)

“The people make the program so special,” Jackson said. “The close proximity to major writers, producers and agents made this the perfect program for me.”

Jackson is the founder and CEO of Auburn Avenue Films, a production company specializing in projects that are diverse and encourage positive change.  Most recently, she was executive producer for “Welcome to Pine Lake,” the highest rated documentary in CBS All Access history.

She also teaches classes in crew production, screenwriting and writing for television at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Jackson credits the MFA screenwriting program for honing her writing skills, focusing on building story and developing character.

“As a filmmaker, I understood structure and the basics, but my mentors helped me elevate my understanding and execution for creating impactful stories,” Jackson said. “It’s a master class, not a basic class.”

 John Strauss (MFA ’20; Screenwriting Mentor)

With Los Angeles as his home base, John Strauss has spent nearly 30 years as a screenwriter and producer involved in such popular hits as “There’s Something About Mary,” “Santa Clause II” and the Peabody Award-winning series, “David Makes Man.” He also teaches part-time at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The idea of commuting regularly to the semi-annual residencies in Athens from L.A. was initially daunting, but the trips proved to be something he really looked forward to – writing retreats that inspired new creative work on his part.

John Strauss pursued an MFA in screenwriting so he could teach more. (Photo: submitted)

“The flexibility of the program and the fact that you don’t have to move to earn your degree makes it a great setup for someone pursuing a career who can’t just quit their job,” Strauss said.

Strauss now serves as a faculty mentor in the program he graduated from, allowing him to remain an important part of UGA’s growing community of writers while giving back to the program where he earned his MFA.

“I loved the pre-COVID ritual of coming to Athens,” Strauss said. “Athens has such a great energy and being around fellow students and the guest lecturers that they bring in…it was frankly fun and fulfilling.”

Strauss pursued his MFA because he discovered how much he enjoyed teaching and he needed a terminal degree to continue. Despite his years in the industry, Strauss knows there are always things to learn.

“I really believe that one can never stop learning. I am not saying that to be pithy, but between various mentors and guests and fellow students, I learned all kinds of things for a really fresh approach. And I continue to learn as a teacher.”

The past year has been busy for Strauss despite COVID. He is working on a new pilot on Hulu with Viola Davis’s production company, and he has another project with Warner Brothers and Harpo adapting a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

For someone who has found success in the industry, Strauss appreciates the value of the UGA MFA program.

“My advice is that if you want access to an A-level instruction program with mentors who are working in the business and you still want to continue your job, this is a perfect program to enroll in,” Strauss concludes. “It is absolutely commensurate with any film program I can think of in terms of mentors and their resumes.”

Christine Swanson (Screenwriting Mentor)

Despite her successful career as a filmmaker and storyteller, it is Christine Swanson’s job mentoring students in the MFA Screenwriting track that keeps her mind fresh and open to new ideas.

Award-winning filmmaker Christine Swanson in a discussion, “Diversity, Harassment and Bullying in the Media Industries: A Writer’s Responsibilities” on Jan. 10, 2018. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

“Mentoring keeps me on my toes and aware of my own limitations and forces me to figure out what those holes are and fill them,” Swanson said. “It’s about personal advancement and growth.”

When she is not mentoring, Swanson is writing, directing and producing. Swanson’s latest project, “The Clark Sisters: The First Ladies of Gospel,” aired on Lifetime and earned the 2020 Best TV Movie award from the African American Film Critics Association. The movie was nominated for a Critics Choice Award for Best Movie Made for Television. Other credits include “Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story” for TV One and episodes of the television shows “Chicago PD” and “FBI.”

A big attraction of the MFA program is that doesn’t require a lot of time in a different city to complete the degree.

“Students have one-on-one access with professors and mentors throughout the year,” Swanson said.  “As faculty, we are given ample opportunity to interact with our students, and students are able to build their networks and always be in the position to seek mentorship and advice from any of us.”

She advises that students interested in the program should have some knowledge of the screenwriting process.

“Students hit the ground running,” she said. “You are not going to be babysat. You need to be motivated. You need to go in knowing what you want from professors and the program to be successful.”

This motivation is key, according to Swanson, because although storytelling talent is innate, foundational knowledge is necessary to become a successful professional writer.

“I try to teach students sound screenplay structure and then push them to find their own voices within the structure and to come up with something unique and viable,” Swanson said. “Some writers are more naturally talented than others, but I also say ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’”

For more information, visit the MFA Narrative Media Writing program website.

Success beyond the MFA Narrative Media Writing classroom

This is the first of a two-part series discussing a few successes earned by students, faculty and alumni of the low-residency MFA program in Narrative Media Writing. This installment illustrates a sampling of the paths taken by those in the Narrative Nonfiction track. Please view the installment about the Screenwriting track here.

The definition of “success” is subjective.

However, students in Grady’s MFA program in Narrative Media Writing program likely would agree that publishing a book or producing a script is a desired outcome of their degree.

Many students and alumni of the six-year-old program—on both the Narrative Nonfiction and the Screenwriting tracks—have found success.

Program directors Valerie Boyd (Narrative Nonfiction) and Nate Kohn (Screenwriting) note that the low-residency structure allows working professionals to succeed in the program by offering flexible schedules and no need to give up their jobs or uproot their lives while pursuing the MFA. The program is shaped around a week on campus in Athens at the beginning of each semester, followed by a distanced semester of individualized instruction by faculty and an impressive selection of industry mentors.

Following are some recent success stories from MFA students and alumni in Narrative Nonfiction.

Brandon Fleming (Current student)

On the surface, Brandon Fleming has an enviable career.

He is as an assistant debate coach at Harvard University and founder/CEO of the Harvard Diversity Project, an initiative that uses the art of debate to provide a pipeline for diverse students from Atlanta to Harvard.

The cover of Brandon Fleming’s book, “MISEDUCATED: A Memoir,” which comes out in June.

His success with Harvard’s program earned him an impressive resumé at a relatively young age, including a nod by Forbes on its 30 under 30 list and a designation by The Root as one of the top 100 most influential African-Americans in the country.

Despite such accolades, Fleming had an additional aspiration—to write a book. He enrolled in the MFA program with high hopes, but he didn’t expect his book project would morph into another kind of story—and that he would sell it to a publisher during his first year as an MFA student. “MISEDUCATED: A Memoir” will be published by Hachette Book Group in June. Fleming will graduate from the program a couple of months later, this August.

“The MFA program helped pull a book out of me that I didn’t even know existed,” Fleming said. “The program exemplifies the difference between good teachers who can identify potential and great teachers who know how to pull that potential out of you for everything it’s worth.”

“MISEDUCATED: A Memoir” is a personal narrative about Fleming’s journey from that of an at-risk, drug-dealing dropout to becoming an award-winning Harvard educator. Fleming credits the MFA program with guiding him through the entire publishing process from the inception of the book idea and the book proposal, to negotiating the book deal and signing a contract.

“In this program I learned that stories change people more than data ever will because stories are the gateway to empathy,” Fleming said. “Without this program, “MISEDUCATED: A Memoir” would not exist.”

KaToya Fleming (MFA ’18)

It did not take KaToya Fleming long after graduation to start finding golden opportunities.

A year after finishing the MFA program, Fleming was awarded the prestigious Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship at the acclaimed Oxford American magazine. The fellowship supports a writer working on a debut book of creative nonfiction while working at the Oxford American, one of the preeminent literary magazines in the South.

KaToya Fleming talks about her new book, a bibliomemoir about Frank Yerby. (Photo: Emanuella Grinberg)

As she finished her fellowship, opportunity knocked again, this time with a job as assistant professor of publishing arts at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Paired with her teaching responsibilities, Fleming is lead and acquiring editor at Lookout Books, a division of the creative writing program at UNC Wilmington. Fleming says the two jobs dovetail nicely: as a professor, she teaches classes like The Debut Book and Editorial Process, and as an editor, she helps fulfill the mission of Lookout, which amplifies voices of those overlooked in the publishing industry.

“Lookout’s editorial philosophy is particularly close to my heart,” Fleming said.

One reason it’s so important is that she is working on her own project, writing “Finding Frank,” her debut bibliomemoir about author Frank Yerby.

Fleming credits the MFA program with providing her a network that exposed her to an impressive roster of mentors while providing a supportive community of faculty and peers.

“I was excited to enter a program that was dedicated entirely to narrative nonfiction, but most especially one that was directed by Valerie Boyd,” Fleming said.

Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence and director of the Narrative Nonfiction track of the MFA program, has assembled a team of mentors—a diverse group of acclaimed, professional writers—to work one-on-one with students to draw out their stories and hone their skills.

“This program is refreshingly different than the typical MFA program,” Fleming said. “It’s a positive and supportive community where folks really look out for one another and contribute to their peers’ development throughout the program and beyond.”

Martin Padgett (MFA ‘18)

Martin Padgett was already a professional writer when he entered the MFA program in Narrative Nonfiction. He had built a career writing about transportation and automobiles, but as he neared a milestone birthday, he realized he needed to reboot and start taking writing risks to tackle the kind of stories that had always captured his attention.

“I wanted to remain a journalist, but needed to revive and polish my storytelling talent,” Padgett said. “Valerie’s program was the best fit.”

The MFA program helped Padgett to produce his first book, “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution.” Due to be published in June, by W.W. Norton, the book tells the story of Atlanta’s LGBTQ civil rights movement in the 1970s.

Padgett, who was also selected as a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow dedicated to working with emerging LGBTQ writers, says his book would not have happened without the MFA program.

“I had vague ideas of what I would write but it wasn’t until I sat in my first MFA sessions that I realized how high the bar would be set, and how deeply I’d need to embed myself in a compelling story that only I could tell,” Padgett said.

“Our MFA program continues to be a source of pride and joy for me.”

Padgett points out that the flexibility of the program allows for a variety of professionals to enroll.

“In our program we have professional journalists —and we also have had magistrates, firefighters, advertising executives and teachers,” Padgett said. “You don’t need to be on the pages of a daily newspaper or monthly magazine or website.”

What’s the best advice he has for someone thinking about applying to the program?

“Don’t worry about sending the perfect writing sample—send the most intriguing one, one that shows your reach, where you want to be, not where you are,” he said. “The ideas will come, and their shape will change from the moment you begin the hard work of becoming a more thoughtful, conscious, and nuanced writer.”

For more information, visit the MFA Narrative Media Writing program website

#ProfilesOfTenacity: Katy Warren

Why did you choose Grady College and the MFA program?

Up until COVID-19, I was on the advertising career track, but I often regretted not committing to the Entertainment and Media Studies major in undergrad. Film and television have always been what I’m most passionate about. Ten different people sent me the article about how UGA was starting an MFA program in film, television and digital media in December 2019. I decided to throw my application in and didn’t think much about it as I started pursuing advertising jobs before graduation.

March came along, and I think we all know what happened after that. I actually received my admittance letter the day that UGA announced that it would be closing for two weeks. Even though that day was incredibly scary and hectic looking at the future, I felt strangely calm. I knew that I needed to trust my gut and, as cheesy as it sounds, follow my dreams and do the program. After all, life is too short to not wake up every day to something you truly care about.

It’s been such a wonderful experience thus far–from the professors, the hands-on experiences and my incredibly talented classmates–and I’m so happy I chose to do it. I feel so lucky to have called The University of Georgia my home for four and a half years now.

Last show or favorite show you’ve binge-watched?

I just finished “Breaking Bad” and can confidently say it’s easily one of the best television series ever made. The story structure, character arcs and writing is phenomenal. I’m now watching “Better Call Saul,” which is a prequel to the series. I’ve binge-watched some other amazing television series this year: “Succession,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “West Wing,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Watchmen.” They’re all very different, but I can’t recommend them enough!

What does the word “tenacity” mean to you?

Merriam Webster describes “tenacity” as … just kidding! To me, tenacity isn’t just about being determined. It’s more than that. It’s about being fearless in pursuing what sets you apart from the rest or what makes you special. I can’t believe I’m about to say this … but as one of my favorite films, “Ratatouille,” once said, “Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great.”

Favorite UGA memory?

I was fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity as a study abroad trip in June 2018. It was so wonderful to be surrounded by so many passionate, inspiring creatives. Getting to hear lectures on yachts in the French Riviera was also a nice touch.

Fun story: We were all assigned papers and were encouraged to reach out to attendees to interview them. I ran into Akon (casual, right), and he was more than happy to answer a few questions about my topic. It’s not every day you get to hang out on stage with Conan O’Brien, but that’s a story for another time.

What are you passionate about?

I’m passionate about telling people’s stories. At the end of the day, our stories are integral to what makes us human. They’re what bring people together. Everyone has a unique story that deserves to be told, and I want to spend my life making sure that they’re heard by taking noteworthy, artistic visions from page to screen. I hope to inspire and ignite emotions in others, as other artists have done for me.

Favorite quote?

Don’t worry, I won’t quoteRatatouille” for this one. “The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday, that’s guaranteed. And I can’t begin to explain that – or the craziness inside myself and everybody else, but guess what? Sunday is my favorite day again” -Matthew Quick, “The Silver Linings Playbook”

What is your most memorable experience in the MFA program?

Our cohort took a trip to Trilith Studios, where we’ll be living and taking classes next year. We got to see some incredibly high-tech, film equipment and editing bays. 

It was so surreal seeing the sound stages and knowing that we’ll be living right across the street from them in just a few months! Then came the grand finale: going to Truett’s Luau and having “The King’s Feast.” I recommend the tropical chicken nuggets and frosted pineapple drink if you ever get the chance to go. That day was also special to me because I felt as if I was truly starting to get to know the other members of my cohort. 

Warren (left) is a current MFA student and a UGA alumna (BA ‘20). She hopes to continue exploring both directing and screenwriting in her program and find her next steps within the industry. (Photo: Grady College)
Favorite or unique hobby?

Is podcasting a hobby? Well, it is for me. I started a movie and television podcast with my good friend and fellow Bulldog alumnus, Lee Collier (BBA ‘20), this summer. If you enjoy listening to two people screaming their unsolicited film takes, you should give Six Beers Under a listen!

What is a noteworthy piece of advice you’ve received from an instructor, mentor or family member?

I’ve learned so much from my phenomenal screenwriting professor, Neil Landau, this semester. One lesson that has really stuck with me is that, “Vulnerability is a strength. It shows empathy. Vulnerability brings us closer.” Before, I always thought of vulnerability as a flaw. Now, I believe that learning to gracefully accept and own one’s vulnerability is one of the bravest things that we can do.

Favorite Athens restaurant?

In a perfect world, I would start my day at Mama’s Boy with an iced coffee, banana bread for the table–it’s a game changer–and a chicken biscuit. After years of searching, this is a top-three biscuit for me! For lunch, it’s time to head to Cali n’ Titos for the Lumpkin Lunch Special: the chicken Cubano milanesa with extra pink sauce. The grand finale for dinner is … drumroll please … Trappeze Pub! I’m incredibly loyal to their turkey and swiss sandwich with fries and raspberry ketchup. At this point, I definitely didn’t leave room for dessert, but a Cook Out milkshake would suffice if needed.

Editor’s Note: Some of the above answers have been edited for length and/or clarity. 

The #ProfilesOfTenacity series is a set of student features highlighting the strength, determination and leadership of students in Grady College. Stay tuned to see how #ProfilesofTenacity evolve in the future.

Individually tailored MFA program provides unique experience for Matt Pearl

Studying in a graduate program while working a demanding job is no small undertaking. Add the demands of becoming a first-time father, and for many students, that would be a recipe for disaster. But, not for Matt Pearl.

“That’s one of the advantages of this program, because it’s so individually tailored, you really get the experience that you want out of it,” Pearl said of the MFA in Narrative Media program, from which he graduates Aug. 3.

Instead of taking on an extensive research project that semester of his daughter’s birth, Pearl channeled his assignments into writing about his time as a new father.

“That’s a time you want to document everything you’re feeling because you know how quickly time moves. Not only was I able to develop as a writer and produce work that I am proud of, but it also gave me a memento of an incredible time in my life.” Pearl’s final project is a collection of writing about first-time fatherhood that he plans to turn into a book.

By many standards, Pearl already has a very successful career from which many would not make the time to pursue another degree.

Pearl has worked as a reporter for WXIA-TV since 2009, during which time he has won numerous awards, including six regional Emmys just this past June. He has received accolades from the National Press Photographers Association, including being named the Solo Videojournalist of the Year in 2015. He has written a guidebook called “The Solo Video Journalist,” as well as regularly posting to a blog and producing installments of his podcast, Telling the Story.

Matt Pearl during the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Photo: contributed)

So, what motivates someone like Pearl to go back to school?

“From a craft perspective in terms of print writing, I want to take on far more ambitious goals as a writer, and this program offers the perfect marriage of my goals” Pearl said.

Another benefit is a degree that would allow him to teach, something he has thought about doing in the future.

Pearl began considering the MFA at Grady College at the recommendation of a friend, Emma Lacey Bordeaux (MFA ‘17), who was in the first cohort. The fact that UGA was close to his home of Atlanta and was relatively economical were advantages, as was the fact that the MFA program was connected with a journalism college, unlike many other MFA programs around the country.

With his interest piqued, he met with the program narrative nonfiction director, Valerie Boyd.

“Valerie was very honest about the program, and I knew I would be in good hands,” Pearl said.

One of the biggest considerations in going back to school while working is the time commitment, but that has not intimidated Pearl. He admits that it is a huge work load, but managing the extra work load is preparation for the future, and he sees it as an asset and not a distraction.

“I think it’s good that there is a program that gets you working and reading and thinking critically, and forces you to do all of that in a condensed period of time,” Pearl said.

“There is never enough time, but this program gives you deadlines, while at the same time it gives you permission to experiment as a writer and take chances.” — Matt Pearl

The biggest take-away for Pearl is the way he looks at his broadcast journalism differently after taking these classes. Many of his favorite video stories that he has produced over the years were those he crafted in scenes, however he has a more nuanced way of looking at scenes now and plans them with increased intention.

Pearl also admits that he pays more attention to small details.

Pearl explains: “With video, you are letting video tell the story; you don’t have to tell what color the sky is because you see it. With writing, you need that attention to detail. It’s nice to be reminded of how detailed you can be with that attention and how essential that can be to great storytelling.”

The MFA in Narrative Media is a non-residential program, where each student spends two weeks a year on campus, and the rest of the time is spent online and via electronic contact with mentors and peers. Pearl is in the MFA track studying narrative nonfiction, while other students study screenwriting. Over the course of the narrative nonfiction program, students read an average of two books a month and write pieces to contextualize what they have read. They also write their own pieces, during which they are in regular contact with their mentors.

The commitment and dedication of the mentors is what makes the program special, according to Pearl. The narrative nonfiction program has an impressive list of mentors including James Beard Award-winning author John T. Edge, CNN’s Moni Basu and Jan Winburn, writer and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie and professor emeritus Patricia Thomas, just to name a few.

“I don’t think any program like this works without instructors who are dedicated to it and continually push you to get better,” Pearl concluded. “In each case, the mentors challenged me, forced me to ask questions about my writing that I haven’t thought about, and offered a different perspective based on life experience, based on background, based on their own paths as a writer. These mentors have very busy, busy lives, but they carve out this time for people who have that same passion and have that same desire to use writing to make the world a better place.”

Hadjii Hand returns to Grady to mentor MFA screenwriting students

One of Henry “Hadjii” Hand’s personal missions is always trying to get better…and he is trying to encourage his students to do the same.

For Hand (ABJ ’98), returning to Grady College to mentor graduate students is a significant change compared with the undergraduate students he taught in his introductory telecommunications classes in the early-2000s.

“With undergraduates, you are just trying to teach the basics, but with graduate students, you really have the time to dive deeper and talk about how to develop better characters and make outlines really pop,” Hand said. “The one thing I have always appreciated about students, whether they are undergraduates or graduate students, is that they all bring a sincere passion to whatever reason they are here.”

Hand is one of the mentors in the screenwriting track of the Narrative Media MFA program offered at Grady College, an in-depth program with a focus on the art and nuance of writing for television, film and video.

Although he is familiar with the academic setting from his own time as a student and later as an instructor, it’s his experience as a producer that he draws from the most when working with students. He is the producer of the feature film “Somebodies,” that he admits is loosely based on his time as a student at the University of Georgia.  “Somebodies” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and won a Golden Thumb Award from the late film critic Roger Ebert. The film was adapted into a television series for BET, which Hand wrote, starred in and served as the executive producer. Recently, Hand has worked as the consulting producer of the television series, “Step Up,” on YouTube Premium. He is always working on writing material to get his own projects off the ground.

When Hand accepted the Henry W. Grady Mid-Career Alumni Award in Spring 2019, he emphasized the impact that Nate Kohn, his mentor and director of the MFA Screenwriting program, made on him.

In recognition of his accomplishments, Hand accepted the Henry W. Grady Mid-Career Alumni Award presented by Grady College in April 2019.

Hand said the biggest lesson he has learned working in the entertainment industry, is the realization that not every piece of art is for every person, and it is the writer’s responsibility to  have a sense of what’s important and to stay grounded.

Hand explains: “If you have some kind of mission statement for yourself, those criticisms, whether they are for you or against you, are easier to take because you can decipher what’s important and what’s not. If you are just writing stuff trying to please everyone, you are really going to get hurt.”

Hand said it his mission to share with his students the fact that writing is a never-ending process that is never mastered. He finds that audiences are always changing what they want to see.

“Once you think you have today’s style down, that may not be what audiences are into next year. It is your job to have your fundamentals in place. Storytelling never really changes but what audiences are into, and their sensibilities, do.”

“We have an incredible platform and they need to have a voice for something. They can bring about change, but they have to be responsible and be aware.” — Hadjii Hand

As an instructor in the MFA program, Hand joins the students twice a year for a week-long residency at the University of Georgia where they participate in table reads and guest lectures. When the part-time residency is over, he works one-on-one with a few students each semester as their mentor, helping them hone their projects and sharing writing advice. These teaching sessions take place via phone or email every week or two.

“I get the biggest satisfaction working with the MFA students,” Hand continued. We are here to help create some really cool projects that hopefully will help someone go out into the marketplace or help them get their degrees to help with education.”

Together, they will all be better.

MFA in Narrative Media Writing

More information about the MFA Narrative Media Writing Program, including the screenwriting program and narrative nonfiction program, can be found by visiting Applications for the next MFA class are due May 1, 2019 (special alumni extension).

By Lori Johnston (BA ’95, MFA ’17)

I waited for the Grady College’s Master of Fine Arts in Narrative Media Writing program, and it was worth it.

I was enjoying a successful journalism career covering crime, celebrities, politics, business, and home design and architecture. I published freelance stories with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,, American City Business Journals, Wall Street Journal and many others, following full-time work as a reporter for The Associated Press and an editor for magazines and websites.

Lori Johnston (second from left) joins other MFA graduates Max Blau (MFA ’18), KaToya Fleming (MFA ’18) and Mark Shavin (ABJ ’79, MFA ’18) in a panel discussion about preparing for the last semester of the narrative nonfiction program.

As I approached my career midpoint, about 20 years after I earned my bachelor’s degree from Grady in 1995, I desired to move to the next level in my writing and deepen my ability to tell true stories. As with other times in my life, Grady played a key role in my career goals.

When I heard that Grady was launching an MFA program that was the first of its kind in a journalism school and directed by Valerie Boyd, associate professor and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence, I decided almost immediately that I would be part of the first cohort, the class of 2017.

The program appealed to me for its low-residency format. I didn’t have to shut down or take a break from my freelance writing. Each semester, I was paired with one of the faculty mentors, who are accomplished writers. They embraced the experience I bought to the program. They challenged me by providing rigorous feedback throughout the semester. I relished the monthly one-on-one discussions with my mentor and monthly meetings, sometimes virtually, sometimes in person, with peers to discuss books and our writing projects.

The two-year program was a huge investment in my future. It required me to carve out time — early mornings, nights and weekends — for reading, researching, reporting and writing. At the start of every semester, I immersed myself in the MFA residency in Athens — an invigorating, yet intense week of on-campus lectures, seminars, panel discussions and readings by faculty mentors and visiting writers, agents and editors. Our days and nights were filled with intimate and sometimes relentless discussions about the craft of writing with published authors and classmates, who ranged from their 20s to 60s.

The professional and personal relationships I formed exceeded my expectations. My peers from across the country challenged my thinking and gave me confidence to find my voice as a writer.

The MFA program gave me a way to “steal time,” as faculty mentor John T. Edge told us, from our busy lives. For me, that was the life of mother, wife, journalist, entrepreneur, mentor and friend. I finished with three long-form narrative stories and a burgeoning book proposal, all focused on the intersection of faith, race and culture. Since earning my degree, my pieces on faith have been published in The Washington Post.

Hadjii Hand (seated on left in hand), an instructor in the screenwriting program, discusses a scene with current student Wendy Eley Jackson.

The program broadened my writing abilities, honed my leadership skills and gave me the academic qualifications, with a terminal degree, to pursue teaching full time on the collegiate level.

Recently, I joined fellow MFA graduates to read our work during a night of factual, creative storytelling in Athens. When I looked around the room, I saw the same array of ages, including several Grady undergraduate students. One of them told me the next day, “It was like art.”

Hearing that was worth the wait.

Johnston is a part-time journalism instructor at Grady College and co-owner of Fast Copy News Service.


First book signals new beginnings for recent MFA graduate

It’s all about good timing for André Gallant (ABJ ‘10, MFA 17).

Gallant had been waiting for several years for the MFA program in narrative writing to start, so it was a mere coincidence—and good timing—when he received a contract to write his first book within a few weeks of the first class.

Three years later, Gallant has his MFA degree in hand and is about to see his first book, “A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster” published.

“I just knew there was going to be a story there,” Gallant said of the story of his new book.

In addition to his role as a newly-published author, Gallant juggles his freelance writing for publications including Atlanta Magazine, Garden and Gun and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with part-time teaching responsibilities in the Department of Journalism at Grady College.

“A High Low Tide” is a book that he had been developing since around 2012. Gallant’s interest was piqued when he was a journalist for the Athens Banner-Herald and received a press release from the University of Georgia. The release covered the efforts being made by researchers and  shellfisherman to revive the oyster industry along coastal Georgia. The state had been a top-producer of oysters in the early 20th Century, but that title had waned over the years due to economic and environmental shifts. Gallant started looking into the topic and writing about it more and more until he was encouraged to consider writing a book.

“A High Low Tide” details the process of aquaculture and the other programs that have been implemented to cultivate that industry and chronicles one champion of the efforts, Justin Manley. In addition to writing the text, Gallant also took all the pictures in the book.

Although the book may have become a reality even without the MFA, Gallant credits his education through the program with giving him more definition in creating a narrative arc, characters, structure and plot.

“The MFA helped me understand how to make the leap from journalist to non-fiction storyteller,” Gallant said. “There is no leap in ethics, there is no change in the core of what we do as journalists, but the presentation is different and what influences we use to tell the story are different.”

The MFA program is something that Gallant had been tracking since he earned his undergraduate degree. He had kept up with one of his professors and mentors, Valerie Boyd, who kept him posted about this new program she was developing.

Once he was enrolled the program, it brought even more clarity to what he wanted to be doing with his life. “Learning that term ‘narrative non-fiction’ was big for me,” Gallant said, “because I was able to label what I wanted to do—as a journalist, as a writer, as a human.”

Gallant also credits the program with giving him a degree to teach, a profession that runs in the family and one he has been doing part-time since he graduated.

“I am so proud to be teaching at Grady,” Gallant said. “It’s huge for me.”

It is the group of like-minded friends that formed from the class that helped him get through the second draft of the book and the program.

“To have the community that was built from that was amazing,” Gallant said. “Just to have these people you can call, or Facebook or email, who are just as obsessed with that work and to feed off of each another’s energy was really just invaluable.”

Would he ever think about writing fiction? Gallant admits that being a novelist was a childhood dream, but now that he has non-fiction writing in his blood, he dismisses the thought.

“Truth is stranger,” he concludes. “Non-fiction…that’s where it’s at.”

“A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster,” is set to be released on September 15. It is published by the University of Georgia Press.


Inaugural class of MFA students graduate from Grady College

The final chapter was written August 5 as the inaugural class of MFA students at Grady College was recognized in convocation ceremonies.

The fourteen graduating students completed two years of the new narrative media writing program in a low-residency format. Five students graduated from the screenwriting track and nine students graduated from the narrative non-fiction writing track.

“It’s amazing to see the fruits of our effort that began in 2009 in an idea that Valerie Boyd presented me,” said Jeff Springston, associate dean of graduate studies and research. “Nate Kohn quickly added to that idea, and though the road of establishing the degree was not always easy, the results have been spectacular.”

There was a lot of love and affection shown for the program’s directors and mentors. The directors included Valerie Boyd, who led the narrative non-fiction program, and Nate Kohn, who directed the screenwriting track.

“Valerie, when you look out at all of us, I hope you know that your legacy is and will always be strong,” said graduate student Rosalind Bentley at the convocation.

Pete Stone, who graduated from the screenwriting program, expressed appreciation on behalf of the students in his track.  “This is our passion,” Stone said. “This is what wakes us up and gets us through everything else we do. This is why we are here and to find that is just great. I am so happy to find a program that allows that, and I really do thank Dr. Kohn for allowing that to happen.”

MFA graduates from the narrative non-fiction program show appreciation to their families for their support.

Stone and Bentley also praised the vital role of the mentors, the community bond formed among the students and the networking that was created from the special speakers who were invited to speak during the program.

The convocation program included insights from keynote speakers Thomas French, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Jeffrey Stepakoff, a screenwriter and executive director of the Georgia Film Academy.

French encouraged the students to accept the humbling task of chronicling stories. Stepakoff spoke of the burgeoning film and television market in Georgia and his desire to foster writer’s groups in the state that would in turn keep graduates from the MFA program in the state of Georgia.

Benjamin Bolger, another graduate of the screenwriting track added, “Georgia and Atlanta are exciting places for people who want to be in the entertainment and movie business. I can’t think of a better program that is situated to accelerate people’s careers in a very focused direction.”

A clear majority of the students and instructors commented about how the program delivered more than they expected.

“These are stories the world needs to hear,” commented Kohn as he recognized the graduates. “They have exceeded my expectations in every way.”

MFA graduate Benjamin Bolger (right) is congratulated by his mentor, Ramin Serry.

Boyd spoke of the “great enthusiasm, great respect and great love” she had for each of her graduates who filled her with “enormous pride and unbridled joy.”

For narrative non-fiction graduate Andre Gallant, the biggest reward of the MFA program was an in-depth study of the field he loves. “I hoped,

and I think everybody hopes, that the program helps them establish a writing life, a writing practice. It’s kind of hard in our busy lives to treat writing not just as a job but as an art form, as a craft, something we work at and improve. This gives us the first steps to do that.”

Bolger, who has a doctorate from Harvard University and studied at the University of Oxford in Cambridge, concluded that the MFA program compares with other programs he has experienced. “I can honestly say that the University of Georgia, and this program in particular, was really a world-class experience that rivals some of the best competitors that exist. I’m delighted that I was able to participate in this great program.”

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