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Watts College Dean Koppell and family endow scholarship fund in the names of his grandmothers

January 28, 2021

Scholarship to help first-generation students focused on child well-being puts exclamation point on Campaign ASU 2020 for college

An endowment from the family of Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions Dean Jonathan Koppell honors the memory of his grandmothers and will help support students from the college seeking careers that address child well-being, particularly among refugee communities.

The Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell and Elsie Kopstein Sunshine Scholarship Fund was created with an initial investment of $25,000 from their children and grandchildren as Arizona State University’s 10-year fundraising initiative, Campaign ASU 2020, drew to a close in December.

Jonathan Koppell said the emphasis on recipients’ career choices involving children and refugees reflects the lives and values of both his grandmothers, who had a passion for children in common. The emphasis on refugees reflects a seminal episode in Gabrielle Koppell’s life when she secretly shepherded Jewish children from Nazi Germany to safety in America. Scholarship-award preference will be given to first-generation college students as a nod to Elsie Sunshine, who was the first person in her family to graduate college.

The Koppell/Sunshine scholarship was created on Dec. 31, marking the completion of the Watts College portion of ASU Foundation’s Campaign ASU 2020, a 10-year effort to build support for the university and its efforts to serve the needs of society in the 21st century. The campaign raised about $70 million for Watts College, surpassing the goal of $60 million. These contributions – including the naming investment by Cindy and Mike Watts – have transformed the college, expanding its programs to support students, increasing its research impact and driving service to the community.

Dean Koppell recalled the strong impact that both his grandmothers had on him.

“My father’s mother – Oma – was deeply engaged with politics and global affairs. Owing to her own experience fleeing from her home from Nazi persecution, she was very concerned with abuse of power and social justice,” he said. “My mother’s mother was a teacher and raised three children who ended up in higher education leadership. Obviously, her values influenced them, and I didn’t stray far from the path!”

Elsie Sunshine and her four siblings graduated from the City University of New York, which the dean described as “the spiritual ancestor of ASU as an institution committed to inclusion and excellence. Like so many Watts College students, they were first-gen college grads who used education to change their lives.”

Koppell said his grandmothers would be proud to have this scholarship in their names and be pleased to see the support go to ASU students.

“Although they surely never imagined their grandson would end up in Arizona, I think they would understand completely why I am so dedicated to this institution and its mission,” he said. “These two women made a huge impression on me both directly — I was lucky to really get to know both as people — and indirectly through the influence they had on their children, my parents. From them come the basic imperatives that drive me — make a difference in the world, do something that helps people — and I see Watts College and our students carrying that forward.”

Koppell's uncle, Eugene Sunshine, emphasized his mother “would be incredibly pleased and flattered to know that a scholarship was named after her and Gabi, a person my mother greatly respected.”

“The access and inclusivity aspects of the ASU mission go right to the core of what she felt was important in her teaching and related help for her students,” Sunshine said.

Sunshine recalled that virtually all of his mother’s students over the years had serious physical and/or mental disabilities that added an extra dimension to her teaching.

“It necessitated her being much more of a teacher in the traditional sense to be successful. She met that challenge with much affection and respect for her students,” Sunshine said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the emphasis of the scholarship being directed to child well-being, with particular attention on refugees, would bring her much joy. Incalculable personal pleasure would also come her way if she knew her grandson was a key player in helping to make the scholarship happen at a special university.”

Koppell’s father, Oliver Koppell, said he knows that his mother, Gabrielle, “would be enormously pleased and gratified by a scholarship being named in her honor. She was someone who tremendously valued education. She earned a PhD from Heidelberg University when very few women achieved that kind of academic recognition. She was very committed to education and even started a nursery school and kindergarten, thinking this was very important to kids.

“She would have been pleased that this scholarship is being offered to a community of young people who are going further in education than their parents perhaps have been. That Watts College is doing this would have particularly pleased her,” Oliver Koppell said.

The elder Koppell said his mother and Jonathan had a close relationship in which she shared many of her life experiences with her grandson. He said he is sure her influence was key to Jonathan’s interest in education.

Gabrielle’s daughter, Olivia, focused on the thread of social justice that cuts across generations in the family.

“Because of my mother’s life experience, war and peace, culture in the broadest sense, politics and community were the subjects of most of our family conversations,” Olivia Koppell said. "My mother and father lived through the horror of World War I in Germany. Then both had to leave jobs, homes, family and country to escape to America. I know that my mother’s constant yearning and working for a better world had a profound effect on me and my brother Oliver. In turn, his pursuits had a profound effect on Jonathan, who chose a different, but equally impactful route involving education and community.

“Watts College and ASU recognize the path forward depends on young people. As an immigrant/refugee herself, who brought children here to escape war, Gabrielle would be a most passionate advocate for Jonathan’s work at ASU, and the fund; with its focus on immigrants who look to education to improve not just their lives but the community in which they find themselves.” 

Oliver Koppell agreed.

“Knowing a bit about ASU now through him, I’m impressed with the accomplishments of the institution and the mission of the institution,” he said. “I know that my mother, Gabi, would just be enormously pleased that her name was associated with this enterprise.”

The first recipients of an award from the Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell and Elsie Kopstein Sunshine Scholarship will be named for the fall 2021 semester. These biographies of the two women for whom the endowment is named, provided by the family of Jonathan Koppell and the ASU Foundation, will be provided to the recipients:

Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell

Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell had a profound impact on the lives of countless young people by helping refugee children escape Nazi Europe, founding a New York preschool and raising two children.

Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell, sister, Elsa

Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell (left) with her sister Elsa Drucker. Photo courtesy of the Koppell family

Born in Weinheim, Germany, in 1910, Gabrielle excelled as a student, culminating in earning a PhD in geopolitics from Heidelberg University in 1928 — quite unusual for women at the time. By 1933, Gabrielle moved to London, recognizing the dim future as the Nazis rose to power. 

Even with a PhD, employment for women was limited and Koppell was working as a governess when contacted by a group of American Jews concerned about the fate of German Jewish people under Hitler. In 1934, she agreed to chaperone the first group of 11 children sent out of Germany to America by their parents. 

Risking her own safety by returning to Germany, Gabrielle brought the children to America via England and cared for them (and others) as house mother at the Clara de Hirsch House in New York City, until they were placed with foster families across America. The success of this secret initiative — carried out in defiance of policies that restricted immigration of Jews — led to a version of the British “Kindertransport” program that brought 1,000 children to safety in America. 

While Gabrielle continued to work on child resettlement with a charity known as German/Jewish Self Help (this charity is still in existence), she reconnected in New York with Henry Koppell, a book publisher she knew in Germany, and they were married in 1940. They had two children, Oliver and Olivia. 

When her husband’s publishing business failed, Gabrielle started an after-school program to earn income while remaining home with her own children. In 1950, early childhood education was in its infancy, but she recognized the growing need for nursery schools with women joining the workforce. 

To earn the certification required to run a school, Gabrielle went to Columbia Teachers College. She enlisted Olive Felton, an exceptional teacher, as her partner and educational director. Together they created the Riverdale Play School, later the Riverdale School for Young Children, which was designed around the importance of play in the emotional and intellectual development of children. Its motto was “Happy Days Make Happy Children,” and it was deeply appreciated by parents and children alike for fostering creativity, kindness and empathy.

After retirement in 1975, Gabrielle focused on promoting peace and understanding by helping create a Model U.N. program for local schools. Now in its 35th year, this program brings together public and private school students in Northwest Bronx, New York, to engage in discussions and debates addressing pressing global issues in a format modeled on the U.N. General Assembly. 

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine was an educator, mother and grandmother who profoundly influenced others through her example as a first-generation college graduate and dedicated teacher.

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine, Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell, scholarship fund, Jonathan Koppell

Elsie Kopstein Sunshine and her husband Simon. Photo courtesy of the Sunshine family

Born in New York City in 1910, Elsie was the first child of Rose Pollock and Eugene Kopstein, a shoemaker. This family of immigrants from Sopron, Hungary, none of whom had had access to formal education, lived in northern Manhattan. Setting an example followed by her four siblings, Elsie graduated in 1932 from Hunter College — one of the constituent colleges of the City University of New York — as a science major with high honors. Her two brothers, both World War II veterans, and two sisters, would all subsequently graduate from the City University of New York.

In 1939, Elsie married Simon Sunshine, son of Scheindel Messing and Samuel Sunshine, who immigrated from Poland. Her husband, who had not completed high school, owned and operated Sunshine Jewelers in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York. Inspired by the path of their mother, three children — Kathleen, Diane Lisa and Eugene — all went on to accomplished careers in higher education. Indeed, both her daughters earned doctorates and contributed through leadership, and their brother served as vice president of two major universities. Their careers clearly reflected their mother’s values and enthusiasm for learning.

Elsie began her own career as an educator when her children were older. She distinguished herself by creating an extraordinary program in special education at John Ericsson Junior High School in Brooklyn, not far from Sunshine Jewelers. Elsie was completely dedicated to her students’ total well-being, even bringing them to her home for further enrichment and attention to address their mental, emotional and physical challenges.

Her retirement was celebrated by an extraordinary, festive acknowledgement of her contributions by colleagues and students. She died in 1986, and her memorial was marked by the involvement of numerous alumni who celebrated her positive impact on their lives.

Elsie was also a gifted pianist who filled the family home with classical music and opera, a passion that her children and six grandchildren share.

Top photos: Elsie Kopstein Sunshine (left, sitting on a car in 1939 in New York) and Gabrielle Kaufmann Koppell (pictured in 1920s Berlin) are the grandmothers of Dean Jonathan Koppell of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. They are the namesakes of a scholarship fund Jonathan Koppell and his family established to benefit Watts College students. The fund's creation caps contributions to Watts College during Campaign ASU 2020. Photos courtesy of Sunshine and Koppell families

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer , Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions


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ASU transcends fundraising goal, grows culture of philanthropy

January 27, 2021

Campaign ASU 2020 was a resounding success, generating $2.35B and helping countless Sun Devils succeed

Dementia research. Coronavirus testing. Revitalizing communities. Giving more students access to education through scholarships.

Supporters’ tremendous generosity to Campaign ASU 2020 enabled all of those accomplishments and many more.

Nearly 359,700 individuals, corporations and foundations donated to Arizona State University’s fundraising campaign, which raised $2.35 billion and established a culture of philanthropy across the university. Of those, 213,473 were new donors.

“The resources the university receives from donor investors are among the most impactful support ASU receives,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow during a virtual donor appreciation event Tuesday. “They enable us to fund individual students in making progress, to give special resources to individual faculty members, to create entire faculty chairs that change the trajectory of an academic unit. They help us to maintain all of our initiatives in sustainability and dozens of other engagements that allow us to serve more people and accomplish more for the state; $2.3 billion-plus sounds like a huge number, and it is a huge number, but the impact is infinitely greater than that — it’s infinitely greater in lives changed, trajectory changed, outcomes changed.”

A gift of land enabled ASU’s start, so it’s fitting that philanthropy pushed boundaries and opened up new avenues for faculty, students and the community overall. More than 87.5% of the gifts were less than $100, but there were more than 10,000 gifts of $25,000 or more during the campaign.

“We are extremely grateful for the gifts to support ASU’s vision for what higher education can and should be,” ASU Foundation CEO Gretchen Buhlig said. “Every gift is important, whether it’s $10 or thousands of dollars. It all makes a tremendous impact on our students, faculty and the community.”

RELATED: Celebrating the impact of faculty and staff giving

Another notable campaign milestone is the endowment reached the $1 billion threshold. This achievement enables the university to attract and retain distinguished faculty and their research, provide additional scholarships to students, and offer additional enrichment opportunities and research to solve world problems in perpetuity.

ASU is one of about 45 public universities and 100 universities overall that have an endowment of $1 billion or more, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers fiscal year 2019 survey.

The ASU Foundation publicly kicked off Campaign ASU 2020 in January 2017 to raise the long-term fundraising capacity of the university and focused on six priorities: ensure student access and excellence; champion student success; elevate the academic enterprise; fuel discovery, creativity and innovation; enrich our communities; and drive Sun Devil competitiveness. The campaign concluded Dec. 31, 2020.

“Together, our potential is limitless,” Crow told donors during the celebration. “There’s nothing that we can’t do, nothing that we can’t achieve, and you all have been a part of making that happen. Thanks.”

Enrich our communities

“This has really been a fantastic opportunity where the campaign has allowed us to amplify our charter,” Crow said. “Our focus on inclusion versus exclusion and the success of our students, our focus on research that benefits the public, and really importantly, our focus on taking responsibility for our community.”

Caring for the ASU and Arizona communities was paramount when the COVID-19 outbreak spiked in March 2019.

“We were very fortunate that the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust stood and helped us out in our early response to the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Josh LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute. “We were contacted by a number of first responder organizations as well as critical infrastructure people, people who run power companies. They have individuals critical to the power grid, but they cannot socially distance. By offering them testing, these people could safely work in their environment and know they weren’t going to infect each other.”

ASU developed a COVID-19 saliva test to offset the shortages of nasal swab tests in Arizona and rapidly scale testing for the ASU community as well as the community at large. The new test was available by the beginning of April, and more than half a million tests have been completed since then, LaBaer said.

“All of this was because of the seed the charitable trust planted by getting us going quickly, by putting that equipment in place, by getting us the supplies we needed to run those tests,” he said. “It got us up and running immediately. That was crucial.”

Ensure student access and excellence

One student who benefited from donor support is Sonia Villalba, a senior studying communication in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She moved to the United States from Ecuador when she was 5, and her father passed away when she was 11.

“Going to school was a big deal for my family, especially attending a four-year university,” Villalba said. “We never thought we’d have the money to do that. That all changed when I met Chris and Chuck Michaels.”

Charles “Chuck” (’83) and Christine “Chris” (’87) Michaels created a scholarship to help Arizona high school graduates continue their education at their alma mater. They were among 92,479 degreed alumni who donated to ASU during the campaign, which is up 11% from when the campaign began.

“Education is the great equalizer,” Chris Michaels said.

“We’ve really tried to not only help financially but to help with mentoring,” Chuck Michaels added.

Villalba is one of 70,969 undergraduate and graduate students who received $253 million in ASU Foundation philanthropic scholarships during the campaign. That’s a 22% increase in scholarship recipients.

Elevate the academic enterprise

During the campaign, $85 million was donated to establish 60 new chairs and professorships, which is a 53% increase during the campaign.

While endowed positions are prestigious for the scholars who hold them, they are also marks of distinction for a college, Mari Koerner said. The former dean of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College became the Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education in 2015 to 2020. Now a professor emeritus, she said, “An endowed professorship or chair is an act of trust by an individual that an investment in this enterprise, specifically in faculty, will pay dividends through increased knowledge for and impact on the community.”

Koerner’s professorship was not the first to be funded by Richard and Alice Snell. They previously endowed a professorship in education policy studies in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Social Transformation, formerly held by Emeritus Professor Teresa McCarty.

Faculty not only benefited from private support, but also contributed to a culture of philanthropy. Nearly 4,747 faculty and staff members donated during Campaign ASU 2020, doubling the number of employees who gave to ASU at the start of the campaign.

Fuel discovery, creativity and innovation

Brent Nannenga, an assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, is working with a few others in the university to use advanced technology to understand why toxins attack the brain and a transformational gift from J. Orin and Charlene Edson is bolstering that work.

“The seed funding has really helped us because we’ve had this idea that has potentially groundbreaking implications, but we just need to get it off the ground,” Nannenga said. “Can we use some of these tools for new diagnostics, or can we use some of these tools for new therapeutics, maybe develop a vaccine?”

“It’s been great to finally get the resources to make a difference for Alzheimer’s research,” Nannenga said.

Abigail Gomez Morales, nursing and health care innovation PhD candidate in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, is combining virtual reality and geriatrics to simulate what Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients endure to help their caregivers improve communications.

“Thanks to your gift I got an education that gave me all of the foundations that I needed to create this gift for the community,” Gomez Morales said during the virtual donor appreciation event.

Champion student success

Donors contributed to the new, larger Pat Tillman Veterans Center, now located inside ASU 365 Community Union, which also was made possible, in part, from donor support.

The Pat Tillman Veterans Center provides comprehensive resources for about 10,000 student veterans, military active duty, guard and reserve members, as well as their dependents who are utilizing their sponsors’ GI Bill benefits while attending ASU. The center connects them with academic and support services such as assistance with veterans’ benefits, employment and referrals to make the transition from the military smoother.

Chris West and his family established the Family First Scholarship to assist dependents of veterans who died or were completely and permanently disabled while on active duty with their Chapter 35 benefits, which includes 45 months of education and training benefits.

“What’s so important about this group is they fall short of Veterans Administration help by one year,” West said. “It just fell in our lap that this is a great opportunity to pick up this last year for them. When you speak to them, and you can hear in their voice and see the relief you’re bringing to them, it gives me great joy that I’m touching lives and not just writing checks.”

Drive Sun Devil competitiveness

Zylan Cheatham, NBA player and ’19 graduate, wanted to make a difference in the south Phoenix community he grew up in that was surrounded by poverty, gang violence and other challenges.

“I knew I wanted to change things for the next generation of kids,” Cheatham said. “I wanted to get into the classrooms and get into the school systems and donate. Anything I can do to help.”

Cheatham’s gift benefits the ASU Center for Child Well-Being, which works with children whose parents are incarcerated.

“I know I’m going to impact kids that weren’t presented the same resources that everyone else was. That’s pretty much a big thing for me,” he said. “The more educated, the more prepared students are for the next level, for the real world, it’s only going to benefit us in every way.”

Private support is not a replacement for the university’s other sources of revenue, including investments from the state, students, their families, faculty, staff and research grants.

“Private support is critically important to Arizona State University because it enables solutions to problems that can transform lives and improve communities,” Buhlig said. “Private support enables opportunities for growth, innovation and excellence for our students and faculty.”

Although the campaign concluded, fundraising to elevate ASU’s work toward transforming higher education and making it more accessible continues.

“There’s no rest. There’s only where we move to next,” Crow said. “We have already emerged as America’s most innovative university and we are well-positioned by 2025 to be a completely new breed of university. One that impacts the state of Arizona, its residents, businesses and environment and extends across the nation and around the globe.”

Michelle Stermole

Senior Director, Public Relations and Strategic Communications , ASU Enterprise Partners