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'Fresh Prince's' Tatyana Ali

Fresh princess

By Serena Kappes

Tatyana Ali
Tatyana Ali says a recent reunion with her former castmates at the wedding of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" star Karyn Parsons "was like time had just not passed at all"; (inset) Ali in 1990.

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(PEOPLE) -- Taking an extended hiatus from the entertainment business isn't usually a career-enhancing move. But for Tatyana Ali, who grew up before America's eyes as Ashley Banks on the hit sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," the decision to focus on college has gotten her some extra attention.

"I was away for so long and not in any of the casting rooms that when I go in there, they're like, 'Oh my God -- you're an adult!' " she explains.

Ali, now 24, wasn't sure whether she wanted to return to acting full time when she entered Harvard University in the fall of 1998, just two years after "Fresh Prince" ended its six-year run. But in her junior year, while producing a fashion show with some classmates, she had an epiphany.

"I realized that I knew so much about putting on shows, and I was like, You know what? It'd be stupid not to continue on the path that I'm going for. Why be scared? I can do this. I can be an entertainer and have skills behind the scenes too."

After graduating from Harvard in June with a degree in government, Ali began pursuing acting with renewed vigor. She has two upcoming films: the slapstick "College Sex Comedy" and the independent "dramedy" "Nora's Hair Salon," in which she costars with Bobby Brown. Of the latter film, Ali says, "It's the biggest part I've ever played in a movie. I have a lot more responsibility than I've ever had before."

But she feels prepared for the challenge. As a child, "I was a ham," the native of North Bellmore, New York, says with a laugh. "I always wanted to entertain people and sing and dance." At age 5 she auditioned for and signed on with manager Aggie Gold, who soon booked the young actress in commercials for products such as Children's Tylenol. Ali then made regular appearances on PBS's "Sesame Street."

For more about Tatyana Ali, click here.

For more Where Are They Now? stories, visit PEOPLE.COM

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