Opportunity doesn’t always knock. Sometimes it rings.
Angela Williamson remembers leaning in as a professor critiqued one of her scripts, when she heard the ring. A colleague at NBC television told Ronald Dyas, now professor emeritus of communications, he needed production assistants to prepare — that day — for former President Richard Nixon’s funeral service.
“I think I have someone right here,” she heard him say. The script would have to wait. Within minutes, Williamson, an undergraduate at the time, was headed to the Richard Nixon Library and Museum less than 5 miles away.
She worked until midnight behind the scenes, running research and scripts to the on-air talent, studying how each light and each camera set a stage for history in the making. Exhilarated, she returned the next day to assist NBC’s national news team, covering the funeral.
She met “Nightly News” anchor and managing editor Tom Brokaw there, and was starstruck by the professionals in front of and behind the cameras. Her classroom had expanded. She dove into the environment and knew instantly she had found a career as a storyteller.
“I felt encouraged; everyone was asking me what I wanted to do,” she says. “How many people can say they worked as a production assistant at Nixon’s funeral?”
Her new colleagues encouraged her to join a mentoring network for black students’ success and the National Association for Black Journalists. “Now that I look at it 20 years later, I know each opportunity was a door opening for me and an example of how those professors cared about their students,” says Williamson ’95, ’01 (B.A., M.A. communications).
In her senior year, while taking a documentary class, opportunity called again. “I felt my calling. I wanted to do a documentary,” she says. “The class gave me the passion to tell stories that celebrate the human spirit of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, even through adversity.”
Cal State Fullerton’s filmmaking courses, including production classes, were a primer for the mandatory internships where Williamson gained the practical skills she needed to land a production job at Orange County News Channel one month after graduation. She worked behind the camera to master her skills in the on-campus, student-produced shows — predecessors to today’s student-produced “OC News” and “Al Día.”
As a graduate student, she mastered the art of grounding her film works in research, and gained “the ability to look at the unknown and research it from every angle until I could ‘own it,’” she says.
All that she learned became a foundation for her master’s thesis — a script for a docudrama about Rosa Parks.
The script later became her film “My Life with Rosie,” which was released in December.
Telling Rosa’s Story
The film has screened at the Silicon Beach Film Festival and the Culver City Film Festival, where it won the grand prize.
The 64-minute documentary shares family and mostly unheard stories of “the mother of the freedom movement,” Williamson’s cousin by marriage. It includes interviews with Parks’ cousin, confidante and caregiver Carolyn Williamson Green, and Jeanne Theoharis, author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.” In focus is Parks’ life before and after her December 1955 arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger — viewed by many as an action that launched the civil rights movement.
“Her fight for human rights not only starts before the bus, but continues 40-plus years after,” says Williamson. Parks’ push didn’t end with the abolition of segregation, she added. Parks lost her employment and fled frequent death threats, eventually moving to Detroit with family.
“For her, it was not just a focus on the South. There’s a whole part of the North that’s not often explored, where she started to fight segregation in housing,” Williamson explains.
“What Rosa’s story tells people is that it doesn’t matter what we’re facing in life. We can still make a positive change in life — in how people are treated. Cousin Rosie didn’t think people should be treated in any different way other than with respect. She continued it until her last breath.”
Parks was well into her 80s when Williamson first met the icon at her bridal shower. Parks penned “Welcome to our family” in the hand-picked copy of “Quiet Strength” she gave to Williamson.
“I was just in awe,” says the first-time filmmaker. “Remember, this is the woman we learn about in elementary school. I remember thinking, ‘My hero just gave me this book and I’m part of this family.’ It really hit me at that point.”
Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92 and was the first non-politician in American history to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. On the 60th anniversary of Parks’ stand, in 2015, and again shortly afterward, as Williamson planned her father-in-law’s memorial, she began to think of the family’s legacy — and the script for Rosa’s story called to her again.
She was in early preproduction on the documentary, and teaching communications and public speaking courses at Chaffey College, when discussions with Theoharis and the details in her 2013 book confirmed many of the Williamson family’s tales about their rebellious matriarch.
“It was a game-changer,” Williamson explains. “This is the Rosa Parks that America doesn’t know about, but should know about.”
The film began to morph, and the skills Williamson gained as a Titan, and refined as a professional, made revisions easier.
“Everything that I’ve done in my journey started at Cal State Fullerton. It pretty much made me the person I am today.”
Reels in Motion
“Angela’s opportunities for hands-on practice while at CSUF reflect the experience of myriad communications students who gain that competitive advantage from opportunities such as the Daily Titan and Tusk magazine, the PRactical ADvantage student-run agency, a speech and hearing clinic, a highly ranked forensics program, and the Latino Communications Institute,” says Ed Fink, interim dean of the College of Communications. “We’re proud that she used skills mastered here to help tell the story of such an inspirational American activist and hero.”
Williamson’s educational experience also reflects the mission of the College of Communications, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, says Fred Zandpour, longtime faculty member of the Department of Communications.
“One of the hallmarks of the department is providing a quality learning environment to a diverse body of students who have access to cutting-edge knowledge, as well as opportunities for hands-on professional experience,” explains the professor. “This is accomplished by professors with national academic reputations and professional experience in the field of communications. The department has integrated advanced technology into the curriculum by providing access to state-of-the-art labs, studios and student-run media and agencies.”
Williamson’s classmate, Shelley Jenkins, would become a lecturer in the Department of Radio-TV-Film, since renamed the Department of Cinema and Television Arts.
“Our graduate program class had a number of very strong, intelligent and passionate women who were looking to create a positive change in the world,” says Jenkins. “What Angela has accomplished with this documentary is meaningful and amazing.”
While in the master’s program at CSUF, Williamson and her classmates studied a then-proposed formation of the College of Communications, comprising students who, at the time, studied communications within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Again, it was a call to put her theoretical classroom skills into use that would help in her future career, and Williamson seized yet another opportunity. The practical experience continues to shape how she teaches in the Communications Studies Department at Concordia University in Irvine.
“That helped me become an educator,” she says. “Today, I teach in practical ways, so those students walk away with something that is useful for their portfolios.
“At Cal State Fullerton, I was able to graduate with a portfolio because of the things that I did,” Williamson adds. “There’s a gem right here in Orange County that’s giving students everything they need to get ahead.”