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'While You Were Out' host Nadia Geller is back to finish her EIU degree

Nadia (Macnider) Geller is a master at transforming ordinary beginnings into extraordinary results -- not just in home décor, but also in her career and life.

Geller, who left Eastern in 1997 without a degree and without a plan, went on to craft a successful career, from starring in four popular design shows on The Learning Channel ("While You Were Out," "Home Made Simple," "Trading Spaces" and "Date My House") to operating her own booming Los Angeles-based design firm.

"Risk is a big part of my life," she said. "When an opportunity presents itself, I give it everything I can."

And although time is at a premium for this wife, mother of two toddlers, and businesswoman, Geller is making time to finish her EIU bachelor's degree through online classes.

It's just the latest example of Geller pushing herself to the limit -- and then going a little farther.

Geller (back row, third from right) poses for a team picture while at EIU.

Days at EIU

Geller has been visiting EIU since she was an infant, as her entire family attended the state track meet each May with Geller's father, a track and field coach at Schaumburg High School.

"Charleston was a big part of my childhood," she said.

Geller initially attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, but when she barely missed the cutoff for a cross country scholarship, she began looking for Plan B. Closer to home, EIU offered her a cross country scholarship, so in Spring 1995, she enrolled as a graphic design major.

Perhaps one of the best lessons she learned at EIU had nothing to do with design, and everything to do with humanity. As a scholarship-supported athlete and residence hall assistant, Geller was prohibited from working an on-campus job. But because she "literally had no money" for anything even as small as art supplies or a pizza night with her friends, she appealed to EIU officials to let her work. They granted her request.

"I think what I learned was that if you sit down and talk with people, people are genuinely good," she said. "Most of us like to help each other."

A typical day started with running -- often through Charleston's "beautiful rolling hills" -- at 5:30 a.m., followed by working the breakfast shift in the Lincoln dining hall. When classes allowed, she'd scarf down a meal and pick up a lunch shift, too. That evening, she'd run again and do homework before collapsing into bed to get ready to do it all over again the next day. As if all of that weren't enough, during her last year at EIU, she also worked as a resident assistant in Lincoln Hall, and she also volunteered to design EIU brochures and draw cartoons for The Daily Eastern News.

"My life was pretty intense. I think I attended one party."

She might not have realized it at the time, but the skills she was honing at Eastern would go on to become essential to her future success.

"It obviously taught me that I needed to manage my time, and there's always a way to get what you want," she said.

Geller also gained a lot of valuable experience from her graphic design classes, but perhaps most importantly, her professors accurately conveyed to her exactly what a graphic design career entailed -- and Geller knew it was not a good fit.

"I like to roll my sleeves up and move around and not be in front of a computer all the time," she said.

That's why, in December 1997, she opted to leave EIU so she could focus her efforts on pursuing a career.

Chicago, New York and a Big Break

Geller moved to Chicago, where she found a job as a satellite coordinator for mega-hit shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones and Siskel & Ebert.

When her now-husband moved from Chicago to New York when she was about 22, she made two life-altering decisions: to follow him there, and to put all of her chips on landing a job in design.

After poring over every design textbook she could find, she landed a job at New York City's ABC Carpet and Home, a trendsetter in the interior design industry. Geller became the "visual manager" for the 40,000-square-foot facility.

Geller with 'Date My House' co-host Bob Guiney in 2008.

When a customer who was a soap opera actress was asked if she knew any down-to-earth, pretty, young designers for a new TV show called "While You Were Out," she recommended Geller. And so Geller's TV career began.

"Being on a television show was really an amazing opportunity," she said, still seemingly astonished at how she was treated as a star on the set. "It was kind of like winning the lottery. Doing 'While You Were Out' was an amazing experience I'll never forget."

Geller went on to rack up credits in 100 episodes of design shows. Filming only took a couple of weeks out of each month, leaving Geller some free time. True to Nadia Geller fashion, she opted to fill that free time with more work, starting her own business, Nadia Geller Designs.

Nadia Geller Designs

At any given time, Nadia Geller Designs is in the thick of several big projects. She has warehouses in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Denver, and her staff sometimes has as many as nine employees.

Her website, www.nadiageller.com, shows samples some of her previous work. Currently, she's working on five buildings for Chicago developer Fifield Companies, whose owner, Randy Fifield, told Geller, "What we like about you is you're a shape-shifter."

"I have a love for all genres of design, almost like a set designer," Geller said, explaining that she can take a vintage angle in one room and go toward a very natural look in the next.

She typically focuses on commercial design, but often, those clients are so impressed, they hire her to work on their own homes.

When designing homes, she works to make sure each room reflects the people who live there.

"I want my home to tell my story," Geller said.

The decor that helps tell her own story includes "a lot of stuff found on the streets of New York City," including a huge farm table that she and her husband, without saying a word to each other, both picked up and carried the quarter mile back to their home ("it makes me smile," she said); a portrait she drew of her husband; and a large Indian armoire ("the first real piece of furniture I ever bought") that now sits in her daughter's room.

And if she ever gets bored with her furniture, all she has to do is make a trip to one of her three warehouses and switch it out.

But artwork -- either her own, or gifts from friends and family -- is her favorite touch. A painting she made at EIU -- in a class with one of her favorite art professors, Yu Ji -- is prominently displayed among her treasures.

In her business, Geller has hired many talented young designers fresh out of college, and she's noticed that while most them have excellent ideas, they don't understand the real-world limitations, including budget constraints, that need to be considered in implementing a feasible plan.

Therefore, Geller's next big goal is to teach a college-level class "to help those people execute those designs," she said.

That's one reason she's headed back to EIU -- virtually speaking. More importantly, she wants to finish her degree to provide an example for her children.

Back to EIU

This spring, Geller is enrolled in two online classes through the Bachelor in General Studies degree program, adding more to her already very full plate. Her class time begins once her children and husband, Keith, are asleep.

She laughs when recalling a recent class questionnaire asking what her hobbies are. "Showering," she joked. "I get 10 minutes a day for that."

Although her degree completion could be a few years down the road, Geller is already dreaming of donning a cap and gown for her commencement and shaking the president's hand as she walks across the Lantz Gym stage.

"I would love to do that, and I hope I can. I'll come and speak -- I'll do anything. I think it would be a trip."

She looks forward to joining two of her four siblings as EIU graduates: Lauren Macnider '08 is a veterinarian, and Joe Macnider '09 is a teacher's aide and coach at Schaumburg High School.

And when her degree is completed and her kids are older, she'd like to head back to the TV world. She enjoys tossing around show ideas with her husband, Keith Geller, whose lengthy resume includes producing the Tribeca Film Festival and the current TV game show "Wipeout."

It's safe to say that whatever goals she sets her sights on, she will be a success, thanks to her talent, unfailing work ethic and persistence.

"I don't like hearing 'no,'" she said. "You've got to keep on keeping on."

(c) 2013 Eastern Illinois Alumni magazine. Used with permission.

The Geller family: Nadia holds son Julian, while her husband, Keith, holds their daughter, Sasha.


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